About March 2011

This page contains all entries posted to Hearts & Minds Books in March 2011. They are listed from oldest to newest.

February 2011 is the previous archive.

April 2011 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

March 2011 Archives

March 1, 2011

Jubilee authors, best-selling books and that fulfillment of prophecy: Bob Goff's door

I have been pretty sick for a few days and wanted to do this in two parts but I just couldn't do it earlier.  Sorry it is now so long.  Consider it two for the price of one. I've posted it as a monthly "review column" since those are generally longer than a blog.  I hope you read it all, not only because I tell of Jubilee---which means so much to us---but because I explain great books all along the way.  I think I'm on to something with this, and hope you agree.   If your a new reader (maybe somebody we met at the conference, welcome aboard.)

PERHAPS IT WAS THE DOOR

Perhaps it was the door that symbolized for me the power of Jubilee 2011.  Storytelling evangelist of holy whimsy and God-generated goodness--trusting Jesus and loving others with creative initiative--Bob Goff metaphorically, and literally, ripped the door off of a hell-hole of a small prison where 74 African children languished in jail for want of trials.  Since he volunteered to train lawyers and then became a judge in the Ugandan court system, he got fair trails for these children who had been jammed in this awful prison room for over three years.  73 were found innocent and delivered to their homes and the prison shut down.  He had the door there on stage.  It sent shivers up my spine when he explained what it was---the actual door! It dawned on me that the Jubilee text of Luke 4 itself promises liberation from dark prisons; this was a partially fulfillment of that exact promise! I simply couldn't hold back the tears.  What does seeing something like this do to a young adult, sitting in a room, being similarly moved to think of doing great things with their own lives?   Oh, if you weren't, I wish you coulda been there.

Bob-Goff-950x425.jpgGoff briefly told of how his playful style got him the opportunity to gather some parliamentary leaders together and, well, got them to vote to ratify the United Nation's law against child trafficking.  He told a story some horrific abuse by some cruel witch doctors who had mutilated a child, leaving him for dead.  Goff prosecuted the bad guys, and announced that they will get a ruling "this Wednesday."  He had a picture of the kid, with his attorney, Bob Goff.  This, the first case applying an international treaty that he single-handedly got ratified.   Man, I wish you coulda been there.

OR THE MATH MAJORS


Or perhaps it was the pack of math majors who were crowded around the book table, astonished to be doing serious theology as they considered the books a speaker cited, books like Mathematics in a Postmodern Age: A Christian Perspective (Eerdmans; $35.00) or Mathematics and Religion: Our Language of Sign and Symbol by Javier Leach, a Spanish Jesuit writing in the Templeton Science & Religion series (Templeton; $19.95.)  The Jubilee workshop leader, Anthony Tongen, came up through the ranks of CCO, attended Jubilee as an undergrad, heard me do my book talks about integrating faith and scholarship and was thus 9780062024473_0_Cover.jpgencouraged to see his planned career as a teacher as a holy calling.  He now teaches as a prestigious university and will be a published author, as a book he has contributed to will be released later this year. Mathematics Through the Eyes of Faith edited by Russell Howell and James Bradley (HarperOne; $19.99 ) will take its place along others in that series like Literature Through the Eyes of Faith, Music Through the Eyes of Faith, Sociology Through the Eyes of Faith, Biology...., Psychology..., History..., Business, and others.  All are quite good and knowing this Pennsylvania college kid has grown up to contribute to the rather arcane topic of religion and math, in this solid series published by HarperOne, and does this cheerfully at a secular university, well, it sort of sums up the vision of the Jubilee mission.

Another iconic moment for us was getting cheered as I stumbled on to the huge stage, under stadium lighting, and seeing out of the corner of my eye the jumbotrons showing off the books I was celebrating.  If you click on the link to the pictures (at bottom) you'll see one of me on the big stage and the screen behind me.  I was telling about Richard Mouw's tremendous little study of new creation called When The Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem (Eerdmans; $14.00)  We always promote a book or two about the Bible at Jubilee since Biblical literacy is a key to personal growth and subsequent social transformation.  This year I also gave a shout out to Why the Bible Matters: Rediscovering Its Significance in an Age of Suspicion by Mike Erre (Harvest House; $13.99), which I thought would be perfect to get smart young guys and gals aware of the Big Picture of the Story, in a way that would resonate. You may recall me reviewing it earlier this year. And of course we pushed the easy-to-read, brief overview The True Story of the Whole World: Finding Your Place in the Biblical Drama by Michael Goheen and Craig Barthlomew (Faith Alive; $12.99.)  They had a heavy duty Bible scholar doing a workshop on Scripture, too, although his important book isn't due for a few months.  We'll have it for sure.  Check out Old Testament Wisdom Literature: A Theological Introduction Ryan O'Dowd & Craig Bartholomew (IVP; $30.00.)

I don't mean to brag, but we are often applauded when we're out doing our book tables and I get to do up-front book announcements and blurbs; whether it is a retreat of Philadelphia area Episcopal priests or local UCC clergy or a conference on faithful politics in DC, it is gratifying that folks allow us to announce and describe books that might be helpful on their journey.  We are grateful.  Jubilee, though, takes this to the level of an extreme sport: there are slides and book covers shown in the program guide, gaggles of authors, and me under the spotlight with the timer ticking.  (No, they don 't give me free reign with the clock.  Not even the keynote speakers get that!)  But it is deeply moving for us to know that a younger generation of vibrant Christians want to think hard about stuff, are will to buy Christian books, are learning the art of serious discernment as they grow into wise and active leaders who can be salt and light and leaven and hope for a world gone awry.

Although we may have been the most prominent display area---30 some tables, 70 some book categories (maybe you saw our cheat-sheet set up guide poster that somebody photographed and leaked on facebook and twitter)---the other booths were also indicative of the ways in which the Jubilee event draws students to think theologically (seminaries as diverse as Denver Seminary, Pittsburgh Theological and RTS are there) and to serve wholistically.  Agencies like Blood:Water Mission and Mission Year stand along side booths helping students grapple with issues such as abortion, welfare reform, racial justice, creation care and the like. There are opportunities for students to work at summer church camps.  CCO invites students to their stellar summer programs such as their two week kayaking trip for seniors, called Crossings, an adventure/ service project trip to Peru, and the one we have played some part in, Ocean City Beach Project where leaders learn to integrate personal spiritual formation, develop a Christian worldview, explore the call to Christian scholarship, learn to lead Bible studies and gain experience at relational evangelism in a shared living experience at the shore.  (Do check out these links as CCO is searching for students to apply for these opportunities, regardless of where they are enrolled.)  Just strolling through these Jubilee booths, catching their flashy graphics, the cool video loops, the compelling brochures, well, it just thrills us to know of what God is doing in the world and how Jubilee networks so many innovative and fruitful organizations, from think-tanks like Center for Public Justice to savvy, mission sending agencies like World Harvest Mission.  

And wonderfully, our friend Walt Mueller (who himself had sat at Jubilee as a young one some 30 years ago), did a keynote speech, and then invited students to commit to adopting a child through Compassion International.  The call to do so was honest and sincere (Walt has walked through some of the worst slums in the whole world), not pushy or manipulative.  I think over 165 students (or groups of students) signed up to invest in the lives of a third world child.  I know that some events that are twice the size yield considerably lower results.  Thanks be to God.

(Walt by the way, has a brand new book out---so brand new that I watched him open the box there at the convention center that had been sent that very day .  How cool!  It didn't sell well among the collegians because it is called 99 Thoughts for Parents of Teenagers (Group; $5.99.) I suggested they buy it for their parents, but, well, you know...  Maybe you know somebody who'd want pretty serious theology and sound insight packaged as quick and easy as it comes.  Walt is a serious scholar of youth ministry (his Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture: Bridging Teen Worldviews and Christian Truth (IVP; $18.00) is a must-read in this field!)  His CPYU is highly regarded in all corners of the church.  He wasn't so sure he should follow the proposal the publisher gave him for these quickie little sayings because he doesn't want to give the impression that this is silly or simple stuff.  I think it worked out, and we are happy to have it, even if it didn't sell at Jubilee.  Ha.)

WHY DIDN'T SOMEBODY TELL US THIS BEFORE?

Perhaps one of the other moments that took our breath away---in joy and, I'll admit, and with a touch of frustration---was to hear what a speaker doing a workshop on Christian insight for the technological world and how engineering students might think more faithfully about their vocations reported.  He said that several excited students (all engineering majors, natch) exclaimed, "Why hasn't anyone ever told us this before?"  Told us what?  I'm not exactly sure, but the workshop leader surely had two major points: all of life is being redeemed by Christ so every legitimate career is a holy calling; one can be an engineer for God's sake.  And, then, it follows that if one wants to be a Christian engineer one must think about the ways in which that field is construed, taught, and understood, and seek God's wisdom for the norms and principles inherent in his world that hold for good design; this should be our pride and joy, giving God glory by doing good (engineering) work.

41GDt0psUnL._SL500_AA300_.jpgAerospace scholar and workshop leader Ryan O'Dowd was pleased to see a batch of books on engineering in our display, not just those that properly critique the idol of technologism (say, Neil Postman's Technology, or Jacque Ellul's The Technological Society, or Langdon Winner's The Whale and the Reactor) but those that point in a redemptive direction.  Civil engineer, humanist Samuel Florman wrote the very nice The Civilized Engineer (St. Martins; $17.99) and the wonderful Existential Pleasures of Engineering (St. Martins; $15.99) and the Calvin College Center for Christian Scholarship years ago did a significant inter-disciplinary study of norms for design called Responsible Technology edited by Stephen Monsma (Eerdmans; $26.00)--a must-read in the field.  We stock the serious Christian reflections by Dutch professor of engineering Egbert Schuurman although most U.S. students haven't seemed to catch a vision for thinking this philosophically about the underpinnings of their practical majors. Former Jubilee speaker Jack Swearengen has a thick, important book Beyond Paradise: Technology and the Kingdom of God (Wipf & Stock; $35.00.)  Do you know any engineers who read this kind of stuff?  Has your pastor ever suggested they do so?  Probably not. In those students lament---why hasn't anybody ever told us this before?---you hear the whole raison d' etre of the Jubilee and the CCO's call to whole-life discipleship in God's good but fallen world. Why don't Christian bookstores carry this stuff?  Why don't many Christian colleges, even, not use these sorts of texts?  Why don't church-going engineering professionals seek them out?

It is why each year the conference attracts earnest young students but also eager adult leaders, pastors wanting to brush up on the real role of the laity, and those eager to understand how best to minister to young adults who naturally are in the vanguard of this kind of interest. Not a few church leaders, elders and pastors show up, wanting to learn how to navigate this world that---most likely---their seminary training or elder training didn't even touch. (Scroll pack to last month's column to see what one local church is doing to advance this conversation.) The word is getting out: God cares about your work and you have a duty to think about what you do for a living.  

Here is another example of this too rare kind of conversation: Mel McGowan is an award
51kOssKEepL._SL500_AA300_.jpg winning designer whose high-end firm, the Visioneering Studio, has done everything from ball stadiums to innovative church design.  His blog has done some serious re-thinking about notions of sacred space and the way aesthetics matters for the common good.  His book--whose title is a play on the title of a world-famous design book--is called Design Like God Gives a Damn: Revolutionizing Sacred Space. (PlainJo; $15.00.)  Well, think what you may of the catchy title, you have to admit it is true.  God cares.  It matters.  This book is visually stunning, sort of a portfolio of his architectural work and altogether interesting.  To hear Mel, check out the Q Society Room DVD entitled Where You Live Matters: Developing a Vision for Your City (Zondervan; $29.99) where he, with some other new urbanists, talk about place, architecture and renewal of our built environment.  Again, students who are studying this stuff at the university level were just dazzled to hear evangelical Christians speaking about ideas and insights that related to their field of study with passion and excellence and care.  You should get one of these DVDs and pass it on to somebody you know whose on your local zoning board or housing council or township offices.  What a witness that would be, faithful insight applied to the details of place. 

I wish you coulda been there to see all the empty cardboard boxes being recycled at the end.  We sure did sell a good amount of books.

Many of the keynote speakers had major releases. Q Ideas founder, Gabe Lyon's Next Christians: The Good News About the End Of Christian America (Doubleday; $19.99) is nearly quintessential as a Jubilee book about young adults rising up to be known as restorers; his opening talk was just fabulous, interesting, helpful, clear.  Lisa Sharon Harper's Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican...or Democrat (New Press; $24.95) has a title that is also perfect for Jubilee.  Jubilee promotes thinking beyond the standard assumptions and rejects ideologies that are rooted in assumptions that are inconsistent with the teachings of Scripture.  She just rocked the house telling stories of her NY Faith & Justice organizing, and later used her drama background in a performance during worship.  Wow.  (She is working on a couple of other book projects, too so keep an eye on this woman!)

mca1.pngSoong-Cha Rah is a incredible communicator and a scholar of racial and ethnic diversity that is clearly on par with his older colleagues Philip Jenkins, Lamin Sanneh, or Andrew Wells.  The Next Evangelicalism (IVP; $15.00) carries a powerful subtitle which he explicated in a quick-paced and punchy Saturday morning lecture, "Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity."  This project is important for at least two reasons, it seems to me: firstly, if we truly want to understand the Bible on its own terms we ought to try to question our own cultural assumptions that we bring to the text; that is, a multi-cultural or different interpretation may help us correct blind spots and unhelpful biases. Secondly, the world, including the West, is increasingly multi-cultural so we might as well prepare now for the future that is nearly upon us.   Rah's more recent book, Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church (Moody Press; $14.99) has been used by CCO for their staff training to further resource them in offering leadership in our obviously increasingly diverse college settings.  Serious stuff.  We are thrilled to sell books like this, so glad to meet brother Rah and hear his important presentation, and be reminded, again, of how this conference has always promoted God's vision of racial reconciliation and multi-ethnic ministry. I hope your congregation is responding to God's call to this aspect of our witness, but is preparing for the "many colored" future that is soon upon us.  His books would be useful places to start if you want to move forward on this.

One of my favorite main stage speakers was James Emory White. (Check out his website,
9780830833122.jpg Church&Culture.)  He brought home--with the always workable story of Esther--the call to be agents of change, to be used by God, to live into the destiny that God may have, "in a time such as this."  He was a forceful communicator, really compelling, no-nonsense and very, very interesting.  Whether it was reporting from a recent trip to Egypt (and his insights about revolutions) or his teaching from his great book on change agents in history called Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day (IVP; $15.00), he brought remarkable challenge and upbeat inspiration for those wanting to make a difference.  I have not finished but can fully recommend his latest, Christ Among the Dragons: Finding Our Way Through Cultural Challenges (IVP; $17.00) which is exactly the careful sort of study we need that is insightful but not dry, critical but not negative, culturally-engaged but Biblically orthodox.  And I was sincere when I told him back stage, and announced to the crowd in my book plug, that sometimes I have pulled out A Mind for God (IVP; $13.00) and re-read a few chapters that hold up the significance of reading, just to remind me of why we got into this book-selling business in the first place.  I love that little book!  If you read my reviews with any regularity (or attend Jubilee) then I hope you would to!  Give it a try!

Not all of my readers are used to what used to be called in some circles "altar calls" and I'm sure some have been turned off by manipulative and pushy preachers insisting that listeners come forward to get born again.  Of course the abuses are commonplace in the popular imagination, but when the invitation to consider the claims of Christ, to repent of one's own sin, to accept the grace offered by a justifying God who offers grace, and to do that in the context of a world-changing call to seek justice and be restorers of the common good, well, it brings tears to my eyes.  White is a good preacher and I pray his final call bears fruit for the Kingdom.  Ahhh, I wish you coulda been there.  Guys like this make me happy to remain a card-carrying evangelical.

Sunday morning featured two more main stage authors.  I've already mentioned Goff.  Many of you know him from the "Meeting Bob" chapter in Donald Miller's Million Miles in a Thousand Days memoir (which, by the way, just released in paperback this week, now selling for $14.95) or have seen his presentation from last year's 2010 Jubilee which is able to be watched at jubilee tv.  We have just a few of his book Finding Karishma: Modern-Day Slavery and the New Abolition Movement (Pascoe Publishing; $17.95.)  The back cover notes that Bob has a passion for "unconventional, entrepreneurial activities."  Oh yeah, I'd say so.  In Finding... he chronicles not only the founding of his organization Restore International, but tells of the risky effort of busting a brothel in India, how a young kidnapped and enslaved girl named Karishma didn't get set free (when the complicit police tipped off the brothel owners) and how they subsequently traipsed through every village in that part of India trying to find her.  The story is eye-opening and riveting---how many guys who write religious books have been bloodied when hit with rocks by third world pimps?--- audacious and full of great hope that a small group of people can make a big difference.  The way Goff wove together the goofy stories and joyful shenanigans was great fun---like the time he told us about when he had a Minister of Justice from an African nation visit him, took the dignitary to Disneyland and tricked him into thinking he had to wear the Mickey Mouse cap with mouse ears all day "because it was his first time there" (he had a slide of the dignified chap in Mickey ears to prove it!)  But then he starts talking about global justice and the reforms his team has  made in Ugandan justice systems and the schools he's started----(think of the scene in Million Miles when Goff invites Miller to plant a ceremonial tree, there)--- and how he uses his legal training for important things, well, its almost a perfect kind of talk.

And then there was the brilliance of Bush-era White House speech writer, now WashPo columnist and PBS pundit, Michael Gerson, offering what was perhaps the most brilliant speech of the weekend, a thorough-going challenge to excellence and Biblical faithfulness and cultural engagement.  This guy knows his political theory, is informed by Kuyper and the neo-Calvinist worldview stuff that so animates the founders of the conference, and has served, well, in one of the most important spots on the planet.  Can anybody say Daniel?  You may know Mr. Gerson's  important books Heroic Conservatism: Why Republicans Need to Embrace America's Ideals (HarperOne; $15.95) (by which he means, among other things, a decent sort of populism, rejecting the crass ideologies of neo-conservativism, and deepening a concern for the poor) and the recent (co-authored) City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (Moody; $19.99) with a helpful forward by Timothy Keller.  I don't know if these students quite realized that they were taking in the rare opportunity of listening to a speech by someone who has help draft some of the most significant speeches of our lifetime, but it was pretty great.  No matter what your political or theological leanings, Sunday morning was extraordinary.  And I haven't even mentioned the important liturgical aspects of the gathered assembly, or the amazing worship led by the Bi-Frost Worship Arts team and Pittsburgh's own Josh Moyer and friends.  Joy Ike & Peace Ike even joined on stage!  I really truly wish you could have been there.

* * *

NOT JUST THE MAIN STAGE STARS

Yet, the books that sold the absolute best at Jubilee 2011 were not main stage keynoters, they were guys that spoke to smaller crowds in packed side rooms, with students spilling out into the hallways.  This is fascinating to me and Beth and we were glad that each of these speakers were friends; it is embarrassing to run out of books, and we ran out of three.

Eric Metaxas did a workshop on using his apologetic books Everything You Always Wanted to Know about God (Waterbrook; $18.99) and Everything Else You Always Wanted to Know About God (Waterbrook; $14.99), and a third, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God: Jesus Edition (Regal; $19.99) which are witty and smart and balanced and helpful and serious, mostly.  What else would you expect from a guy who organizes philosophy and current affairs lectures in Manhattan (under the name Socrates in the City) and also has been a writer for Veggie Tales?  He's a good writer and care about important things.  For several years now we have promoted his Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery (Harper; $13.95) which is a fabulous companion biography to the movie about William Wilberforce and his campaign to end slavery in England.  If you haven't read it, it is a great read, putting you into the campaign like no other book.

9781595551382.jpgBut Metaxas' Bohoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (Nelson; $29.95) took a prize, for sure.  I'm not sure what kind of a prize, but it it a bit fat book, selling for nearly $30 and we sold a good, hefty, batch of them.  Not as many as some other books, say, but for the size and price, the commitment to reading and further study, the number of pages they were actually buying---and the excitement among older and younger students as they heard him speak---was remarkable. He served folks well as he visited and signed books, likable and humble and astute. I knew we were right when we named it an H&M Book of the Year.

I have not reviewed here adequately a book that we were very impressed with this past year, and I am so glad the author did a Jubilee workshop.  In fact, I did a very careful read of it before publication and was asked to contribute a blurb---most of the other endorsers were famed neuroscientists or medical scholars or big-wig theologians.  I guess they needed the "everyman" voice of a small town guy like me.  Well, I was happy to offer a rave review because I truly believed in this book.  If you've been in the store anytime this fall you probably saw it: Anatomy of themedia_httpfilestyndal_fIfjo.gif.scaled500.gif Soul: Surprising Connections between Neuroscience and Spiritual Practices That Can Transform Your Life and Relationships.  This great resource is penned by Curt Thompson, M.D. (SaltRiver; $14.99.)  Thompson is a psychiatrist and Christian leader in the DC area.  He and his family have been faithful at an inter-racial, urban church and we have known of his work for years; he attended Jubilee decades ago in fact!  That this book came out---drawing on his distinctively Christian perspective on brain studies, psychiatry, and how that can help us in ordinary living--has been a God-send to many.  That students flocked to his workshop and gave it huge thumbs up is telling.

Curt himself suggested that neurology is hot right now.  Faith and science question loom large.  And the trend to be interested in spirituality is deepening.  To think about formation in light of how God wired the brain to work, and to apply that to ordinary stuff like relationships and growth, maturity and Christ-likeness is a useful combo.  For whatever reason, this was a hugely popular workshop, a much-discussed book, and we have gotten more in stock.  Whether you are seriously interested in psychology, counseling, brain studies and helping others or if you are an ordinary person just needing some new insights about solving your own life issues, Anatomy of the Soul could be helpful, and will surely be an interesting, absorbing read.   It sure was a big hit in Pittsburgh!

Response-Jeff-Overstreet-33-300x200.jpgAnother workshop leader at Jubilee whose books were a bit hit was Jeffrey Overstreet.  He did a workshop on film criticism and his book Through a Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in Movies (Regal; $17.99) nearly sold out.  It's a good one, too, and we've enjoyed recommending it.  He will be at the IAM Encounter 2011 arts event in NYC next week so we ordered more of his book right away!

 Also popular was his workshop on why reading stories is good, how fiction works, especially the epic sort of fantasy that he writes.  Students who like well written fantasy novels snatched up Aurialia's Colors, Ravens Ladder and Cyndere's Midnight (Waterbrook; $13.99 each.) We even took a few pre-orders for the forthcoming next one in the series, The Ale Boy's Feast which officially releases in early April.  Most people that read the first are hooked and are eager to learn how the epic plot unfolds...

What an upbeat and kind guy he was, too.  It is good to connect to authors, to hear about their writing and hopes and artistic vision and, of course, to be reminded of this natural connection between writer and bookseller and reader. Thanks to Jeffrey for his good work, kind spirit, the encouragement he offered to young readers and aspiring writers, and for befriending this stressed out bookseller amidst the craziness of such a large gathering.

Kent Annan of Haiti Partners was very moving as he walked students through his two books, one that came out3617.jpg a year ago (just before the horrific earthquake in Haiti) Following Jesus Through the Eye of the Needle: Living Fully, Loving Dangerously (IVP; $16.00) and the brand new one---honest, raw, powerful, poetic, courageous---After Shock: Searching for Honest Faith When Your World is Shaken (IVP; $15.00.)  Those that met him and his Haitian friend were very, very moved; honored.  What a good man.

The few CCO staff whose job it is to curate and orchestra and execute this huge gig deserve more credit than most can ever realize.  I get to see some of the behind the scenes stuff---I'm nosy, for starters, but our large role there necessitates interfacing with sound guys and schedule keepers and stage hands, not to mention most of the key speakers.  I can't tell you how complicated it all is and how these few manage it.  We're tickled to be a part of it year after year, selling books about this same theme: God cares about all of life, Christ's redemption is broad in scope, and we need to think faithfully as we serve the culture God has placed us in, making a difference in big and little ways.  Students, especially, get to think about this as they ponder their life's callings in the university classroom.

MELLEBY SAYS "MAKE COLLEGE COUNT"

This is why we did a special shout out and celebration for the brand new Derek Melleby
make-college-count-a-faithful-guide-to-life-and-learning.jpg book---inspired in no small part by the Jubilee conference itself---Make College Count: A Faithful Guide to Life + Learning (Baker; $12.99.)  Derek did a workshop for first year students, and in a side-bar event nearby, for nearly 150 high school seniors.  This little book is a pre-Jubilee primer, the best resource of its kind to get high school kids thinking about these great questions that will frame their college years.  You'll hear be promote it as the graduation gift-giving season approaches this spring.  In a way, I'm sure this year's Jubilee felt like a real celebration for Melleby and his closest friends and family.  He mentions Jubilee in his book, so it was fun to do a quick hat tip.   Yay.

* * *

Not every great conference has great authors.  But it is our experience that the buzz of the book display, the fame of the authors, the quality of conversation around speakers who are passionate and writers who who care enough about a topic to write a whole book on it creates, most often, a vibrant and robust setting for serious transformation, for big ideas, for on-going commitments to read and learn and grow.  A cynic might say that it is obvious why we think this, as it is all about the money for us.  (Yes, at least one blog--written by a person who does not know us at all--suggested as much.)

Think what you will, but we know in our hearts that it is our great joy to watch folks buy good books, to anticipate the growth and learning that will take place, and to hunger for God's glory to be known as His people do good works.  From engineering to the arts, from political theory to fighting slavery, from writing fantasy to thinking about math, from reforming our food habits to reforming our engagement of popular entertainment, there is much good to be learned. There is much to be done.  Jubilee is about God's claim in Christ over all of life and Christ's gospel of grace so transforming college students that they, empowered by the Spirit, involves themselves in local congregations and attempt to transform the world.  I wish you coulda been there.

See lots of great pictures of Jubilee 2011 here. Thanks to Andrew Rush.

As we unpacked the rented truck in the snow when we got home Monday night, a friend and local customer offered to help.  It was a great blessing.  Now I'm sick, we've got boxes everywhere, and we are off to two other smaller events before regrouping and heading to IAM Encounter in NYC next week.  Pray for us if you can.  Thanks for caring.

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March 2, 2011

Five brand new books: Janell Paris on sexuality, a long-awaited memoir of Eugene Peterson, The Pastor, the new Timothy Keller on Jesus, N.T. Wright on the Scriptures, a collection of critical engagement with the work of Wright,

It always happens that when we go away to sell books at a large event, we return home only to find a few books that arrived in the shop the day we left.  If only.  That's what I routinely say.

Well, I didn't get to show or sell these at the Jubilee conference last wee, so I'm saying it.  If only.  You can make it better by buying them now.  At least I can sell a few of these that would have been popular in Pittsburgh.

51uhmBcoLML._SL500_AA300_.jpgThe End of Sexual Identity: Why Sex Is Too Important to Define Who We Are  Jenell Williams Paris (IVP) $15.00  Had I taken this to Jubilee, some thoughtful leaders and mature Christians would have been very eager to consider it.  In fact, a few had asked us about it, thinking it was to release in March sometime.  Yet, it may not be for everyone.  It is very thoughtful---written by a progressive, evangelical anthropologist---and will be sure to attract the ire of some.  If I understand Paris correctly, she is trying to de-emphasize the ways in which sexual identity has become an idol (both in the culture at large and within the Christian subculture.)  Just for instance, concepts like "gay" and "straight" are relatively recent developments in human history.  As it says on the back cover, "We let ourselves be defined by socially constructed notions of sexual identity and sexual orientation---even though these may not be the only or best ways to think about sexuality." 

This offers a clearly Christian standard of holiness for sexuality, but one that takes into consideration the ways of our postmodern times.  She is attempting to move beyond culture-war impasses, but I am not sure most on any side wants to enter that kind of gracious space for genuine conversation.  (She tells the story in early in the book about going to a gay bar for the first time with a lesbian fellow-graduate student. She had never been to a bar before, gay or otherwise, and yet was comfortable and attempt to be gracious with her new friends.  When they discovered that she held to fairly traditionally-understood Biblical sexual ethics, her classmate announced that they simply could never be friends, calling Paris a "homophobe.")

Andy Crouch notes that "this is a singularly important book, about sexuality but also about culture, and it is a model of charity, clarity and creativity.  While this is certainly not the last work on Christian sexual ethics, it could be the first word of a better and more honest conversation about holiness and faithfulness amidst our age's sexual confusion."  

Singularly important.  Wow.

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Pastor: A Memoir  Eugene Peterson (HarperOne) $25.99  Well, I've been saying "if only" about this, too, because had I taken it to Jubilee I am sure we would have sold a batch.  Not, interestingly, to the college students, probably, but to adults, former CCO staff, ministry leaders, some of the speakers, the volunteers staffing the missions booths, and to the good representation of pastors who show up at Jubilee just to check it out and learn about young adult ministry.  And I would have pressed it into the hands of any young adult who said they were thinking of going to seminary or sensing a call to vocational ministry.  This poetic and at time mysterious volume--why tell this, but not that?---could be a God-send, a message back to the trenches from a serious, wise, fellow-traveler on that journey.

This is a book that I read in an advanced manuscript months ago, and I can't wait to read it again, more slowly.  I have made myself a promise that I will read everything Peterson writes, and this was a delight. Those of us that know him a bit know of his penchant for slow old-fashioned storytelling and plumbing the ordinary for great meaning.  The Pastor his life story, his memoir, his understated reflections on being callid to the ministry, his early years doing a Presbyterian church plant north of Baltimore, and his eventual rise to fame as Bible translator, writer of The Message, and his shift to public speaker, author, poet, contemplative, and nature lover.  Anyone who likes a well-told story, or Peterson's good prose, or a fairly ordinary testimony of a fairly ordinary pastor of a fairly ordinary church will surely love this wonderful new memoir.  Clergy folks, or those that love clergy folks, will want to have it.  Listen to what Dallas Willard says: "If you are hoping to be a pastor, or just to understand what that is, get this book and soak in it for at least three full days with no distraction. It may save your life and make you a blessing."

Kings Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus  Timothy Keller (Dutton) $25.95Tim-Keller-Kings-Cross-255x255.jpg  Last week I had published a few brief reviews in Comment, an electronic journal I read faithfully (and commend to you.) I knew this was new Keller book would arrive any day, so I wrote the following, which I've edited just a bit:
 

Most savvy readers know who Timothy Keller is. His church in the well-heeled and culturally savvy sub-cultures of Manhattan and its plants are known as shining examples of faithful and relevant contemporary ministry. Redeemer Presbyterian's support for thinking about work, their encouragement of artists, and their commitment to urban flourishing is vital. And Keller's recent writing ministry has caused not a few journalists to note his effective way with words, making compelling cases for Biblical truth and a Christian worldview.

In this brand new book, Keller brings his clear and insightful approach to a study of the life of Jesus (mostly told through the eyes of the fast-paced gospel of Mark). Yet this is not a traditional commentary, exegeting line by line, but a broad and sweeping overview of key themes that relate particularly to his urbane audience--and, perhaps, anyone wondering if the New Testament documents about Christ are not only historically reliable, but also keys to unlocking our deepest human longings and our culture's deepest social needs. The chapters are each titled with a poignant word: "The Dance," "The Waiting," "The Turn," "The Sword," or, in the second-to-last chapter, "The End." The last chapter? "The Beginning," of course. A great new resource for good conversations exploring the basics of the life of Jesus, and an invitation to live into the world His gospel creates.

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Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today  N.T. Wright (HarperOne) $25.99  I've often said that Wright's other good book on how best to read the Bible just a bit too brief to be really helpful.  I was eager to see his new one, long-awaited, and now here.  Alas, this is an expanded version of The Last Word which they now have on the front cover.  Not sure how much new material is here (would have been nice to know from the publisher, eh?) but it seems to me that it could be nearly twice as much.  It is considerably re-packed and nicely revised and expanded.  It is nice that it now matches his previously three from HarperOne, with uniform black and white hardback covers.  I'm sure it is going to be great to read, a fine and important contribution, ideal for adult classes, serious readers and thoughtful beginners.  Rave endorsements on the back are from authors as diverse as J.I. Packer and Brian McLaren.  Timothy George says "Here is Wright at his best...uncommon wisdom for all who read and love the Bible."

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Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright  edited by Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays (IVP Academic) $24.00  For my own tastes, this may be the most exciting book so far this year.  It is certainly the one I couldn't wait to see, and I immediately skimmed it, even as I was exhausted from Jubilee packing and a general lack of sleep.  A bit more rested, I realize now I was not temporarily loosing touch for wanting to tell everybody about it: this is, indeed, one of the great, great books of the new year. 

It was last spring when we had the immense privilege of setting up a N.T. Wright book display for the New York Center for Faith and Work (of Redeemer Presbyterian) as they hosted Wright doing a lecture on his then-brand-new book on character, After You Believe. Tom had just come from a several day conference on his work held at Wheaton and he was happy to talk a bit about it.  My good friends Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat had done one of the more, uh, memorable presentations about Wright and he described it just a bit to me.  And pushed back just a bit.  (He and Brian have been very good friends for years, and Sylvia got her PhD under him and is also a close friend.)  I was thrilled to realize that the Wheaton symposium was all on line and the lectures given and critiques offered and Wright's replies were all able to be watched.  It was a fantastic educational experience and a great example of significant, candid and friendly intellectual discourse.

I hope to explain this book in greater detail later, but know that it includes some very well crafted papers about Wright's majisterial work, from Marianne Meye Thompson doing "Jesus and the Victory of God meets the Gospel of John" to Richard Hays (on Jesus and what we can know) to Edith Humphrey (on Paul) to Jeremy Begbie (on Wright's ecclesiology)  to Kevin Vanhoozer on "Wrighting the Wrongs of the Reformation? The State of the Union with Christ in St. Paul and Protestant Soteriology."  And more!

Here is why I have to commend this so eagerly right away:  Brian and Sylvia dared to ask--in fine taste and good smiles---some hard questions of the conference and of Tom's own work.  Basically, they ask the "so what?" question.  They push Wright to reflect on how a clear call to justice work might be better sounded by his Biblical study and whether his now-many and properly famous books are going to truly motivate anybody to care much about the sorrows of this world.  Some found it a bit blunt, I'm told, and yet Tom replied with graciousness and both agreed with their desire that this academic work not be in vain, and defended his own style a bit in some fair rebuttal.  Part of his reply is that, yes, he does desire for his work to bear fruit, including an informed church on the march for peace and justice.  I must say that besides this dramatic moment of breaking the professional etiquette for such a fine scholarly conference, Brian, and especially Sylvia, brought some very (very) interesting exegesis of one or two of Jesus' parables which created some vigorous conversation afterwards.  The scholarly conversation record in this book was generally so insightful in part because the scholars knew Wright's body of work so well, and because he was so gracious in sitting for their evaluations and critiques and then responding.  This is a fantastic project, interesting, well-informed, and charitable.  It is a resource worth having.  Especially with those important prophetic words from Brian and Sylvia: who cares and so what?  Maybe every book should come with a question like that attached...

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March 9, 2011

IAM, selling books on the arts, and the spectacular new The Art of Guy Chase (edited by James Romaine; Square Halo Books)

Selling books at the IAM Encounter is one of the most exciting events we do; and I mean
E11hompageLogo.jpg literally exciting.  First it entails driving the van into lower Manhattan---yes, the van that broke down on Thursday in a long and complicated story you don't want to hear.  Then there are the truly amazing folks that show up; urban photographers from China, film-makers, dancers, actors, cultural critics, reviewers, painters, potters, scholars and a whole bunch of folks who care. (And folks whose names I've known because they read our blog and order books from us, friends who are nice to finally meet.) 

Makoto Fujimura and his team bring together a generative array of leaders, speakers, performers, artists of all sorts that create an on-going conversation for three and a half days, stimulating us all to think how best to honor God with our creative gifts, and how to speak wisely about Christian faith to those outside of the church, especially those situated in the serious arts culture.  There was much to take inspiration from day by day, from the passionate attendees, and, of course, from the main stage speakers: from the storytelling of fantasy writer Jeffrey Overstreet--we were the first place in the world to get his yet to be released fourth volume of his Auralia's Colors series, 8291272.jpgThe Ale Boy's Feast--to the personal story of former pastor Irwin McManus (whose lastest book, Wide Awake, dares us to make our dreams reality by getting busy actually doing what we are called to), to the exceptionally popular poet Li-Young Lee.  He read from his latest, Behind My Eyes: Poems which was an exceptionally moving experience. The book is available from us in a hardcover edition that includes Li-Young reading his work (or paperback without the CD.)  His father had been Mao's personal physician until his conversion to Christ, which eventually lead him to a time of imprisonment in Indonesia.  (When the father finally escaped China, he became a Presbyterian pastor in Western Pennsylvania.  Li-Young is now a highly regarded, esteemed poet.)

In the midst of all this is the book display featuring key titles from our arts section, including, of course, the speakers and poets who were there (see the Encounter webpage for a listing of speakers.)  And, we had books like the ordinary-life aesthetics of Calvin Seerveld's Rainbows for the Fallen World and his more recent Bearing Fresh Olive Leaves to the heavy work of Hans Urs Von Balthasar; the brand new William Dyrness Poetic Theology (which I raved about, here) to the important one by Daniel Siedell, God in the Gallery.  We sold out of an excellent anthology of chapters gleaned from a similar conference held in Austin a few years back (it was fun selling it to some people who were at that conference) called For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts edited by W. David O. Taylor (which you really ought to have!)  One of the important lectures at IAM was delivered by Adrienne Chaplin, whose book Art and Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts we still say is one of the top two or three most important texts for studying art from a faithful perspective.   And we so enjoy showing the lovely book by poet Luci Shaw called Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination and Spirit, which is a great ally for anyone considering how to deepen their own creativity or perhaps new to this conversation.

Of course we had our standard Square Halo Books selections---I think that no collection of books about faith and the arts can be without It Was Good: Making Art to the Glory of God (edited by Ned Bustard) and Objects of Grace: Conversations on Creativity and Faith (edited by James Romaine) and Gregory Wolfe's fine collection of short pieces taken from Image journal, Intruding Upon the Timeless, all released by Square Halo.  The first two have chapters by IAM founder, Mr. Fujimura, by the way, and I believe represent the first places he was ever published. 

MakotoFujimura.jpgOf course we sold his exquisite and very interesting NavPress release Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture, his luminous self-published work, River Grace, and many were glad to see Rouault/Fujimura: Soliloquies, his small book showing his abstract work inspired by Rouault paintings alongside some famous (and rare) pieces by the famous French impressionist, with a long essay by Thomas Hibbs. (I reviewed that significant book, here.) Naturally, his new ESV illuminated manuscript, The Four Holy Gospels, was on hand (although the publisher, Crossway, was providing that, so we didn't get to sell it.  We were among the first to review it, though, so happily told customers all about it in their absence. Your welcome, Crossway.)  See our comments about this breathtaking project, here.

And that isn't even mentioning a nice selection of books about faith and literature, a bit of good poetry, books about writing, media and film studies---like the new books in the IVP "Christian worldview integration" series Authentic Communication: Christian Speech Engaging Culture by Tim Muehlhoff & Todd Lewis and Christianity and Literature: Philosophical Foundations and Critical Practice by David Lyle Jeffrey & Gregory Maillet.  We had books on film and books on music, and a few on dance (publishers---we need a solid Christian book on this!) and several on theater (such as Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theater in Dialogue by Todd Johnson & Dale Savidge and You've Got to Have a Dream: The Message of the Musical by Ian Bradley.)

We take Shane Claiborne's Common Prayer: Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals anywhere we can, and it seemed suitable here (especially since it is enhanced with original woodcuts and some calligraphy.)  We sold a couple.  Another lovely book on spirituality that seemed especially appropriate for this crowd was God in the Yard: Spiritual Practice for the Rest of Us by memoirist, poet, publisher, and blogger extraordinaire, L.L. Barkat. (Thanks for the generous hugs, LL!) God in the Yard is a daily devotional, a guided reflection on paying attention to the beauty around us, a sitting meditation, "in the yard."  One doesn't have to be an artist to appreciate this common effort to slow us down, but it seems that those who have a creative temperament would really find it useful. (Writer Denise Frame Harlan did a great review of it, by the way, at the Englewood Review.) And, we loved showing off the new Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer by Julie Benner, a marvelous set of spiritual reflections inspired by great paintings, which are lovingly reproduced in color in this beautiful paperback.  As I said in an earlier BookNotes review, if you liked Henri Nouwen's meditation on the Rembrandt painting in Return of the Prodigal Son, you'll love these vision divina ruminations.  In this little devotional corner of the big display we also had Cal Seerveld's stunningly good, imaginative, and deeply insightful Bible meditations--On Being Human: Imaging God in the Modern World---again, each reflecting on an art piece, a sculpting in Rotterdam, a painting by a young American student, a photo by a middle Eastern woman, a woodcut, a hymn tune.  Do you know it?  Wonderful! And we had the three small Bible study books in the Through Artists Eyes series based on the arts that we described here.

There was much music at IAM, and it was fun to catch up with Jason Harrod (we now have his new CD, Bright as You) and to see New Yorkers lovin' on Joy Ike (and, yep, we have her CDs too, Good Morning and Rumors)  and we enjoyed the improv of a very cool project between IAM staffer and professional saxophone Kevin Gosa and violinist Jake Armerding. (Check out The Fretful Porcupine here.) The Brooklyn-based Zac Williams Band played and rocked the house after the astute literary conversation with poet and former head of the National Endowment of the Arts, Dana Gioia. (His 1992 Graywolf book Can Poetry Matter? is still very important, just so you know!)  What a closing night!

There is more I could tell about this fabulous event and the books that we offered. We're glad for new friends and grateful for the kind words and support.  Click back to a list of books I compiled two years ago after the IAM event (here) if you'd like a few more titles about integrating faith and the arts. It isn't comprehensive, but I'm told it is one of the more interesting lists from any store anywhere on these themes.  I hope you might buy a few, pass 'em on to somebody who might not otherwise know about this great body of literature (or at least copy the list and pass it on as a gift to an artist you know.)  We are pleased to stock this kind of stuff, but it sure is nice when we get to actually sell some.

* * *  
One book which we featured simply has to be described in greater detail (although my words cannot do it justice.)  We are happy to announce its release this month, and proud to stock it.

The Art of Guy Chase
 edited by James Romaine (Square Halo Books) $19.99


agc_cover.jpgThis is a brand new title, published in cooperation with a  This is a brand new title, published in cooperation with a retrospective exhibition by the inestimable artist at Bethel College, Mr. Guy Chase.  Guy has been pushing the envelope of his allusive---fun and yet demanding--- modern art for years, and has been an important voice in circles such as IAM and CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts.)  In private conversation with me at the IAM Encounter, Mako spoke tenderly of him--Guy has been ill with cancer--and assured me he is loved by many contemporary Christian artists.  His work is respected, considered, celebrated (Mako said he owns a piece or two himself.)  Guy Chase himself, too, it seems, is a piece of work.  This book shows off his vision and his work, and invites others to reflect upon it.  It itself is a piece of work, a good piece of work.  Kudos to graphic-meister Ned Bustard at Square Halo for his signature and very appealing design.

This book, then, is, at least, a tribute to Chase's good work, and a testimony to his wide circle of friends who appreciate his gentle demeanor and deep, contemplative spirituality.   Not every artist has a body of work that is important enough to do a major show of this nature, and it is wonderful to have more than a thin catalog showing the pieces displayed.  This is a lasting volume, important in its own right.  Edited by art historian James Romaine---whose first great essay is called "Negative Thinking: Why I Don't Like Guy Chase's Art"---sets the stage for a thorough-going discussion of said art.  And discuss it, they do!  What a joy to listen in to these contemporaries ruminating on Chase's work and how it is situated among the best of the contemporary art world.

Other tributes or evaluations include a great piece by Joel Sheesley, a good commentary by Ted Prescott, a chapter called "Disruption and Illumination: Subtitle" by Wayne Roosa and an insightful essay by Albert Pedulla entitled "Rescinding Disbelief: The Post-Skeptical Realism of Guy Chase."  The book ends with an honest and illuminating interview done by James Romaine.

The Art of Guy Chase is printed well on glossy paper, is produced in a square format (almost8 x 8) and is 131 pages.  It is not
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massive, but it certainly is not meager: it is lavish, to say the least, fun and interesting, colorful and arresting.  Chase's work is almost indescribable, and he works in many mediums, in several contemporary styles.  One piece will look at first like a piece of graph paper.  Another is a huge white sculpture of a wrecked car.  Some are simple sketches mounted on hefty wooden scaffolds. There are classic modern pieces---squares in circles with splashes of primary colors---and there are subtle watercolor grids on mirrors.  He works in gouache on torn paper, he has superimposed photographs on craft bags and he has a fascinating piece that I can't stop looking at called Grail described as "Grape Juice on Aluminum Cans."  Some of the photographs of his work show the whole room, as they are larger installation pieces. 

I have only begun to enjoy the many pieces of Guy's art that is shown here, and haven't yet
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  seriously considered all the articles, which I've only skimmed, as I wanted to see what each contributor thinks.  But I will read and re-read; I am confident this is edifying stuff, challenging (in a playful sort of way.)  This is good for the heart and mind, to ponder why this work is considered important, to appreciate how it helps us see, to realize this is a Godly man, a decent human, doing expressive artwork in a way that causes his fellow Christ-followers (and others) to take notice.  And, besides shaking my head in wonderment at it all, it makes me smile.  Thanks be for the artistry and for the care given by his friends and critics in their thoughtful essays. 

Makoto Fujimura has a nice quote on the back.  Consider this:

Guy Chase's art if full of surprises, twists, humour, candor, inventiveness and delight; Chase takes the postmodern visual language to its ends of hubris and significance, always turning our attentions upside down.

Here is how another artist explained the book:

The Art of Guy Chase explores the visual, conceptual, and spiritual complexities of one of the most provocative contemporary visual artists of faith.  Chase's art is characterized by intentionally cultivated contradictions between humor and sobriety, contemplation and irony, material tactility and sacred meaning.  Lavishly illustrated, this book documents Guy Chase's faithful response to an artistic calling and his methodical engagement with the history of Christianity and the visual arts as a strategy of renewing that relationship today.

Heavy, I know.  And when you've got heavy-weight artist/thinkers like Romaine and Roosa, Prescott and Pedulla and the others, this is a wonderfully astute example of the "state of the art" of contemporary Christian art and criticism.  Yet, again, Chase is a piece of work and has earned the privilege of being taken seriously.  This book is wild and fun.  It is interesting and clever, outrageously so.  I think you'll like it if you give it a try, and you'll learn something, too.

I didn't get to do my "book announcements" that I do at some conferences at IAM Encounter.  If I would have had a shot at it, The Art of Guy Chase is a book I would have highlighted.  I would have held it up, gladly and graciously, and said it may have been one of the most important books in the room.  For those who have eyes to see, I am sure they would have agreed.

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March 12, 2011

Reflective books for Lent

Thanks to my pals John & Kathy who call from time to time to do live interviews on Pittsburgh's WORD FM, a fine978-1-4143-3582-7.jpg Christian radio station.  I was on after Miroslov Volf talking about his new book Allah.  I'd have been nervous (I don't even want to know their drive time listener numbers) but John and Kathy are so supportive and say such outlandishly nice thing about our work here that they put me at ease.  I named a few books for Lent and thought I'd share with you some of what I described to them, and a few others.  As we move this week into this season of the church year may your walk with God be deepened and your journey with Christ be expanded

Devotions for Lent 
from the Mosaic Bible (Tyndale) $2.99 The picture to the right which I intended as a generic Lenten graphic actually is a fabulous little pocket-sized booklet of 40+ Lenten readings, with artwork, handsome (small) typeface and fonts, a Celtic cross image on most pages, and enhanced with quotes from across the church universal. The Mosaic Holy Bible is a very nicely done New Living Translation (NLT) with a liturgical feel, some iconography and such, calligraphy and good quotes throughout which we stock in hardback and a lush leather-like. The devotional is handy and handsome. 

The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life  Joan Chittister (Nelson) $12.99  This is one of the "Ancient Practice" series that we have so raved about, now out in paperback, and it frames our spiritual growth by the on-going "spiraling" church seasons.  I like these kind of basic books on how to live into a God-centered view of time.   A lot of the book is on this particular season from Ash Wednesday into Holy Week and she covers it well (and beyond, of course, into Paschaltide or the days of Pentecost and ordinary time.  If you aren't familiar with this important custom and way of seeing our lives, this is a fine introduction by a popular writer, a Benedictine nun.

Tim-Keller-Kings-Cross-255x255.jpgKing's Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus  Timothy Keller (Dutton) $25.95  This hardback is not too hefty and the 240 pages read easily, offering a fine study of the gospel of Mark.  It is divided into two parts, the first half called "The King" and the second half "The Cross."  I announced it previously here, and mentioned it on the radio interview because I hope that reading it will root our Lenten journey to Jerusalem not only with Jesus---that's the point, you know---but in the accounts of his life as given to us in the Scriptures.  We don't get to make this up as we go along, and Keller is an insightful contemporary pastor with much cultural savvy and not a small amount of apologetic skill.  He's done his homework on Mark's gospel and this book walks us through the life of Jesus and into his final weeks.  Keller is always worth reading and is one today's most important Christian writers and church leaders.

ProductImages.ashx.jpgBread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter  (Orbis) $18.00  Year after year we've exclaimed about how rich an anthology this is, compiled originally by the now-defunct Plough Press, a very literary publishing ministry of a Hutterite community.  This is an unparalleled collection of authors such as C.K. Chesterton, Madeleine L'Engle, Henri Nouwen, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy Day, Frederick Buechner, Phil Yancey, Will Willimon, Barbara Brown Taylor, Edna Hong,  and so many more.  What collection has Philip Berrigan and Oswald Chambers?  Blaise Pascal and Emil Brunner, Fleming Rutledge and Watchman Nee?  These readings are fabulously interesting, deeply rewarding in many cases--- short enough to read quickly but profound enough to ponder all day long.  From "A Father's Grief" by Martin Luther to "The Signature of Jesus" by Brennan Manning to "The Central Murder" by the late Dale Aukerman, this is well written and challenging.  Even after Lent, these excerpts by Yoder and Wright and Romero and Stott and E. Stanley Jones are worth keeping nearby. There are poems, too---Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde, and the important "Seven Stanzas at Easter" by John Updike.  Perhaps you know the companion volume for Advent and Christmas, Watch for the Light

61715573.JPGReflecting the Glory: Meditations for Living Christ's Life in the World N.T. Wright (Augsburg) $14.99  Drawn mostly from Pauline Epistles and the gospel of John, this is solid Bible reflection inviting us to live the life of Christ, sharing God's glory in the world.  As he puts it, "The more we find out about Jesus, and particularly about his death and resurrection, the more we are then energized by the Spirit to reveal God's love to the world...This is our vocation: to take up our cross and be Jesus for the world, living with the joy and sorrow woven into the pattern of our days."   Excellent.

Christians at the Cross: Finding Hope in the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus  N.T. Wright (The Word among us Press) $10.95  In one thin volume you can ponder 8 great sermons by the eloquent (former) Bishop, when he preached at Easington Colliery, a grief-stricken industrial town in England that had had a mining terrible disaster.  Wright preaches through each day of Holy Week, and these homilies bring the pain of Christ to the pain of that place, expertly weaving together pastoral and prophetic insights, naming local injustice and sorrow even as he points to the ways the Christ suffered on our behalf and rises to bring new creation.  These are real homilies, tender and meaty, raw and hopeful.

Lentwise: Spiritual Essentials for Real Life  Paula Gooder (Church Publishing House)
978-0-715-14165-6.jpg $8.99  We import this from the the Anglican publishing house in England because it is so interesting, innovative and useful.  This uses a "journey" motif, with graphic icons to mark our way.  The book is arranged in five sections, offering these spiritual essentials (using passages from John's gospel.)  It includes units on Compass (finding direction), Nourishment (keeping going), Light (gaining wisdom), Shelter (finding security), and Water (enjoying refreshment.)  This can be used individually but is set up for 90 minute sessions with a small group.  This is user-friendly and includes prayer exercises, group activity and discussion and the like.  To be honest, if you are involved in a small group looking for something other than fill-in-the-blank inductive Bible studies, but don't want something over-wrought or complex,  I think this would make a fine study any time of the year.  Nice.


9780830835492.jpgThe Kingdom and the Cross  James Bryan Smith (IVP) $8.00  Co-produced by Renovare, Richard Foster's wonderful ministry which resources folks for the contemplative life, this is a very brief and handsome book reflecting on the huge question "why did Jesus have to die?"  The answers are nuanced and rich, rooted in the narratives about the nature of God and the truth of who God is, revealed by Jesus: a God who loves to help the helpless.  A God who doesn't play favorites, a God who is, in essence, self-sacrificing--even to death--to save a people He loves.  In these six short chapters there is a dual focus: Christ's work on the cross and how we might live in response.  For each chapter there is a several page "soul training" exercise, included to (as they put it) "help the new true narrative take root in our hearts."  These suggestions of things to think about and do are excellent ideas.  Delightfully and very helpfully, most chapters include a visual---an classic icon, a drawing, a photo of The Pieta.  They also suggest several websites and films to view, so this could be a very rich, multi-dimensional experience, designed for individuals or (better) for a small group.  You may know Smith's excellent "Apprentice" trilogy, The Good and Beautiful God, The Good and Beautiful Life, and The Good and Beautiful Community.  Dallas Willard has suggested they are among the best discipleship and formation books he's ever seen.  This is small but, like the others in the IVP formatio series, exceptional.  Not necessarily Lenten, it sure seems like a perfect time to use it.  Highly recommended.

Contemplative Vision: A Guide to Christian Art and Prayer Juliet Benner (IVP) $17.00  I3544.jpg often say that IVP is our favorite publisher, and that their formatio line (see the Smith book, above) does some of the best stuff on spirituality these days.  This is a wondrous example of a book released under their formatio imprint, a book I highlighted at BookNotes when it was released a month ago.  It is about, well, learning to see.  Ms Benner is a trained spiritual director and an artist.  Here, she offers close readings of historic religious paintings, helping us "read" them with deep spiritual intent and guiding us into a more profound life of prayer.  This is beautifully done, of course.  And it is rigorous and mature.  Margaret Guenther (Holy Listening) says it is a "delightful a lavish feast, it left me hungry for more!"  Lent could be a time for you of slowing down, paying attention, noticing God and self and others.  This creative meditation could help you learn to do that, to be that kind of a person, one who has developed a contemplative vision, who can see and care and pray.  Remarkable. 

6a00d8341c7c8e53ef014e5f36c4d6970c-800wi.gifWriting to God: 40 Days of Praying With My Pen Rachel G. Hackenberg (Paraclete) $15.99  I don't know if you know the others in this "Active Prayer" series which include Praying in Color and Praying With the Body.  This new one in the series is exactly what the wonderful sub-title says: praying with your pen!  Yet it isn't just about writing out prayers, but using creative writing exercises, letting the words flow.  There are prayers here, there are prompts and Scripture texts and ideas offered to guide you into the deepening of a life with God.  This can be used as a guide to journaling during any season of your life, but there is some specifically Lenten materiel as well.  Tired of trying to "pray the right way" or only thinking about theological ideas.  Allow this central Pennsylvania  UCC pastor (graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary) to guide you into unleashing your heart, by way of your pen.

the-jesus-inquest1-204x300.jpgThe Jesus Inquest: The Case for and Against the Resurrection of the Christ  Charles Foster (Nelson) $15.99  This book is a worthy investment at twice the price as it is really two books in one.  This feisty writer---he wrote an in-depth book called The Selfless Gene about Christian faith and Darwin and the beloved last volume in the "Ancient Practices" series The Sacred Journey---takes us into the serious debates amongst historians, scholars, theologians and philosophers.  The tale begins as Foster observes that he thought he had this all figured out, understanding the standard, traditional view.  As he grapples with alternative theories, a new generation of liberal scholars, he needs to rethink the question of whether there is sound historical foundations for believes about the resurrection of Christ.  As it says on the back cover "He turned the war in his head---the war between faith and doubt---into this heated, no-holds-barred debate, which presents the case both for and against the resurrection of Jesus."  It looks at medical evidence, Jewish burial practices, archaeological hypotheses, maps, ancient artifacts, the canonical and non-canonical gospels and much more.  If you read his book on pilgrimage you know he has traveled and explored extensively in the Middle East and has both a scholarly side (he's a practicing trial attorney and an Oxford grad) and a tactile, adventurous, journalistic style.  This debate rages in many places (outside of and within the church) and Charles Foster gives us, in The Jesus Inquest, an intellectually exciting, seriously probing, well-written, survey.

Fasting  Schot McKnight (Nelson) $12.99  Another in the "Ancient Practices" (like the liturgical calendar one above) I thought I'd mention this as self-denial is, after all, one of the most classic motifs of the Lenten period.  Whether you "give something up" or not, this study of the practice of fasting is the best I've ever read.  Now might be a good time to explore it, no?

Comforts from the Cross: Celebrating the Gospel One Day at a Time  Elyse Fitzpatrickcomfortscross.jpg
(Crossway) $14.99  I end with this as it is so very clear; I would not call it an anti-Lent book, but it is clear (without a polemic about it, really) that we need not "earn" God's favor by seasonal spiritual activities.  This is not a book to invoke self-hatred or weird ascetic practices or odd mystical experiences but is a clear-headed and happy reflection on the way the cross of Christ is at the heart of the good news of salvation.  This is no-nonsense, meaty, orthodox and oh so helpful for those that need to return to first things.  Ms Fitzpatrick is a retreat leader and the head of Women Helping Women Ministries.  Of her many books, her recent Because He Loves Me is a current best-seller.  Don't you love the title: Comfort from the Cross.  These "celebrations" are 31 solid, endearing, faithful Biblical meditations on applying gospel truths for gospel transformation.


A GREAT BOOK FOR FAMILIES WITH CHILDREN

Amons adventure.jpgAmon's Adventure: A Family Story for Easter  Arnold Ytreeide (Kregal) $16.99  This author has written three other similar books, short stories that unfold day by day to be read and discussed as a family devotional, written for Advent (Jotham's Journey, Bartholomew's Passage, and Tabitha's Travels.) They show that he understands the culture and history of first century Judaism, and he knows how to weave a good tale.  In the new Amon's Adventure he carries the story 30 some years into the future. (Amon is the 13-year old son of Jotham and Tabitha---ha!)  Not unlike the other ones, there is some serious stuff here, so it isn't for little children.  Amon's father is accused of a terrible crime and Jotham, seemingly sacrificing his boyhood innocence, tries to free him.  In what ensues he is swept up in the jubilant crowds gathered on Palm Sunday, hears the Messiah address the angry mob, is present during the daring betrayal of Judas, and witnesses the bloody afternoon of Good Friday.  These are good read-alouds, include a daily short devotionals and allows us to enter into the drama of the story, helping this season become a time of reflection and worship.  There is a very nice page or two in the beginning about Lent, a discussion of how the story avoids "on screen" graphic violence, there is serious conflict and the murder of Jesus can be upsetting to children.  In just a few pages he offers some helpful wisdom about story and truth and parenting.

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March 14, 2011

BookNotes reviews Love Wins by Rob Bell. Eventually. But first, a word on civility, diversity within the Body of Christ, the art of discernment and criticism, and a short book list on theology and unity.

BookNotes is happy that we seem to attract a fairly wide readership.  We obviously are a bookstore and we want to sell books and enjoy having a diverse gang of friends and followers who like to read.  And yes, today (the 15th) is the release day of Rob Bell's much-anticipated Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (Harperone; $22.99.)

 rob-bell-love-wins-book.jpgWe know we have friends who have been deeply immersed in recent weeks in conversations about Love Wins and am glad for those who asked our opinion.  I also know that some of you don't quite know what the fuss is about.  I'm sure most of you know of Rob's popular Nooma videos and his several books (the last of which, a brief and artful meditation on the relationship of suffering to creativity, is now out in a smallish paperback, called Drops Like Stars.)  Whether you know his work or not, you probably know he is an edgy, passionate, artful, and controversial, post-evangelical mega-church pastor from Grand Rapids whose congregation worships in an old mall.  He went to Wheaton, played in a rock band and did youth ministry for a while, and has an advanced degree from Fuller.  He's not your typical evangelical and he has a huge following, and some serious critics.  This new one---which releases today, bumped up by the publisher a week earlier than first announced because of all the frantic buzz, somewhat stimulated by John Piper's ill-advised and cryptic tweet, "Farewell Rob Bell"---isn't really surprising for those who have followed him.  It is, more or less, a description of the powerfully reconciling, cosmos-restoring, new-creation coming, Jesus' Lordship over all, view of the Kingdom of God, the imminence of God, the grace of the gospel, leading to a sort of Christ-centered universalism and a rethink of the typical views of hell.  I'll review it more soon.

Of course those of us who hold to fairly traditional, Biblically-orthodox theology understand why some have branded Bell a heretic; whether it is warranted or not is another matter, but I understand the concern fully.  There is no doubt that he isn't your typical evangelical preacher and his view of the wideness of God's mercy (while nothing new in mainline circles) is not the standard conservative view.  Those of us who want to continue on within a moderate and broadly evangelical tradition but are eager to learn from, engage with, and think about all sorts of stuff---including authors in the more theologically ecumenical/liberal camps, the post-modern/emergent camp, or the heady intellectual types in the Radical Orthodoxy movement, say--- are frustrated that so many have ruled Rob Bell as out of court without much consideration.  Many have weighed in on Love Wins based only on a provocative promo video clip he released and many others have taken them to task for speaking prematurely.  A lot of readers are more than willing to be critical of him, if necessary, but want to be fair and prudent about it, which at least means holding judgment until reading the nuances of his position carefully.  This is my view.  

As you know we are eager to promote books worth talking about, happy to sell titles like the ones by Rob Bell (and Brian McLaren's too, by the way, whose New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith is now out in paperback ($14.99) and his brand new Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words which releases today from HarperOne; $25.99.)  Also important, brand new, and potentially controversial is Allah: A Christian Response by Yale theologian Mirosolv Volf (HarperOne; $25.99) which I've only skimmed briefly.  We hope these kinds of major books can generate helpful and good and fair conversations; we believe in this kind of theological debate and learning.  There is pablum and silliness out there, of course, and I don't spend my limited blog place hyping or critiquing that.  There are oodles of Christian books that are fine, too, but don't deserve much comment here.  But Bell and McLaren seem controversial to many in our circles.   Although I feel a bit of a nervous need to justify it, I don't think there is anything wrong with selling books to discerning readers that will help them think---whether or not they finally agree with the books or not.  And Bell is an author who is on the map.  He deserves your consideration.
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Still, even as many have asked my opinion about the Bell brouhaha, I think that Love Wins is not easy to review well.  Sometimes I joke about how the diversity of titles on our shelves and at our book displays offers "something to offend everyone" and it usually gets laughs---at least among more ecumenical folk.  (A few sour-pusses fail to see any humor in it, I suppose.)  Still, it is easy to say we step on the toes of liberals and fundamentalists equally, but this---this is a serious conversation and I don't think many are taking it lightly.  Neither do I.  I've read it twice and still wonder what I have to say that will help the conversation. 

I will tell you that just today I posted a lengthy comment at an important web review of Love Wins co-written by the esteemed Reformed authors Tim Challies and Aaron Armstrong after they read an advanced copy.  I chimed in and commend my criticisms to you because I found at least five areas where I believed they (unintentionally, I suppose) mis-represented or mis-characterized the book. And these are some of our more reliable critics, not the simplistic ones that major in ugly name-calling. I mention it not only because Challies got 50,000 readers yesterday (not to mention the thousands at the Blogging Theologically site where it was also posted and the numerous blogs that linked to their sites) but because I believe it illustrates how even thoughtful and sound critics have not done a particularly good job at being fair.  After their posts at their respective sites oodles of folks then raved about the critique, posting comments thanking them for their insight. (It astonishes me how many posted comments saying the review was good; how would readers who hadn't yet seen the book fairly determine if the review was good?) The damage has been done; Bell got a raw deal from serious thought leaders who ought to have done a better job.

Here, Scot McKnight offers a teacherly and kind overview of the topic, written before he saw the book, insisting that we shouldn't speculate (or trust publishers blurbs or provocative video trailers.)  I was glad for this amidst the twitter-trending about Bell.  As expected it is sound and very helpful. 

So, in fact, I'm as interested, now, actually, in the caliber of conversation and what it means to do theological debate in responsible ways as I am in the book itself.  

Although Love Wins just came out I've had an advanced review copy for a few weeks.  I've read it twice, and have recently skimmed a handful of other books on the topic of hell, some that I had read previously.  I'll discuss Love Wins in a day or so, and I'll list a few other resources that might be helpful if your interested in a wide range of opinion. As McKnight notes (in the link I gave above) Bell isn't the first to write about this, and he won't be the last.  In fact, Brian McLaren addressed it in a very interesting 2005 novel, The Last Word (And the Word After That) (Jossey Bass; $14.95) and it is an important part of his recent book.  More on that anon.

For now, allow me to say a few things that I want to get off my chest, and name some books that might help remind us of the need for good theology and fair debates.  Thanks for giving me your time---I know this isn't simple.

We are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15) and we dare not fudge or minimize either aspect of that formula.  It is vital to seek orthodox truth, to struggle for clearly articulate Biblical formulations and to remind those in error of the plain teaching of the Bible when they stray from it, although I also think, as in other disciplines, we are free to be creative, to float ideas, to engage in commentary on new concepts and to carry on the on-going task of doing helpful theological ruminations;  while we ought not to this with abandon, unmoored from the great tradition, innovative thinkers shouldn't be condemned as heretics for asking burning questions.  It isn't wrong to offer critique and rebuke but sometimes we could lower the volume.  Not every wrong-headed idea needs to be denounced as full heresy.  (Bell is at times a bit too confident in his view, I think, and he is quite hard on the traditional formulation, but he does invite conversation, asks questions, and more questions.  I don't think he presents his take as "the final word"---but as an invitation for deeper and more fruitful thinking.  This is a tone I also find in Brian McLaren, by the way, who, while critical of an older version of evangelical faith, is eager to admit to being unsure of all the new pieces, humbly submitting---with verve---some new things to consider.  Not everyone reads him as being that gracious, but it is how I "hear" him.  That's not a bad posture, I don't think, when an out-side-the-box thinker is at least humble and tentative creating space for readers to make up their own minds.)

My wife and I recently watched DVDs of Showtime's The Tutors, vividly portraying in extraordinarily graphic R-rated ways, the sex and violence at the center of the English reformation, started by Henry the VIII.  What TV mini-series has Sir Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and conversations about Luther and rumors of William Tyndale's Bible being read, detailing not only early reformation theology, debates about the closure of the monasteries, but piety and politics and romance, too?  The gruesome, evil ways theological minorities were treated---drawn and quartered, beheaded, burned at the stake---was not new news to us, of course, but seeing it so vividly dramatized deeply and profoundly saddened us.  Such violent behavior is never, never permitted by followers of Jesus, and I only bring it up to recall, firstly, how we have come a long way from those awful days, but also how terribly important it is to learn to handle disagreements decently.  This horrible stuff is in our past and we dare not forget it.  We must not stomach the spirit of inquisitions or violent intolerance.

And, anyway, as is so often the case in the Old and New Testaments, there are great surprises for those who think they have their ideas about God or God's expectations all figured out.  There are reversals and upsets and we should never be too confident or complacent or set in our ways.  In changing and anxious times (where there really are dangerous ideas out there and the church seems sometimes nearly unhinged with unorthodox nonsense) we sometimes run too quickly to "batten down the hatches" and "circle the wagons" into an unfaithful and actually unfruitful fortress mentality.  This is usually not a good sign and healthy faith communities will embrace creative thinkers, poets and prophets even as they hold to ancient truths. We will be hospitable and eager to learn, child-like, even, in healthy curiosity. And we will have a passion to learn new ways to explain the gospel in ways that make sense to our culture. The polarizing "pro" and "con" knee-jerk reactions about Bell's book (before most bloggers had actually read it) has generated much heat and not too much serious insight.  It seems to me the twitter firestorm was mostly a knee-jerk reaction and not a sign of maturity or wisdom.  One might wish for a least a bit of the wise prudence of Gamaliel in Acts 5. 

Wisdom? Prudence? The spectacularly important book The Shallows: What the Internet is
The Shallows.jpg Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr (Norton; $26.95) has reminded us that the blogo-sphere, with the distractions of hyperlinks, pop-up ads, flashing pixels and the temptation to think we are engaging in serious discourse when we argue in short-form rebuttals on twitter, is not always a helpful medium for sustained discourse or mature thinking.  In fact, as Carr painstakingly demonstrates, literally different parts of the brain fire when we are doing the skimming sort of reading that we do on line.  We think and process and even feel differently when we read and write on line.  Carr properly frets about the nature of our discourse as our neurology is rendered shallow (reminding me of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death or Marva Dawn's precient concerns about contemporary worship capitulating to the culture of fast-paced screens.)

(Ahh, the irony is thick, isn't it, commending The Shallows here at a blog post?  Ha!  And presuming that BookNotes readers actually read with nuance and care these long sentences of mine.  I hope you don't do the F scan "read"----reading the whole way across the first sentence, part way across the page a few sentences down, and then scanning the left margin, your eyes essentially making an F across the screen---that Carr says characterizes most on-line reading.)

(Again, with irony, I'll interrupt your reading and suggest (maybe best to be visited later, not now) that you at least read Is Google Making Us Stupid?, The Atlantic Monthly piece that Carr wrote prior to releasing The Shallows in 2010. Now that is worth having a fire-storm about!)

Or, see this New York Times review of another book I recently read, and found hard to put   down (and hard to argue with), The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen (Crown; $14.00.)  It worries that the Web 2.0 user-generated media invites us to an unhelpful democratization where even encyclopedias are created by, well, any high school kid with a lap top and entertainment is reduced to watching vapid home-made youtube clips, eroding long-enduring standards and expertise, which is "destroying our economy, culture and our values."  Can you see where I'm going with this: does having access to a blog account qualify you to do serious theological discourse?  To critique books (you haven't even read?)  I'm no elitist----I want you to read me, obviously and I'm not too credentialed---but the firestorm on the web (noticed even by the data-miners at twitter) surely should give us pause.  Bell's book needs to be read, and discussed.  In that order.  Face to face, hopefully, with real friends who can hold one another accountable and learn from one another's diverse Biblical knowledge.  

Which is to say---if you are still with me---that you really ought to buy Love Wins and make up your own darn mind.  I obviously believe in reviewing books (I write them and read them) and obviously hold in high regard the task of the critic.  But let us be clear: no book of this nature can be captured adequately in short review and it is simply irrelevant how many people click "like" on somebody's review.

So, my first point, then, is this: realize that knowing about the firestorm on line and having read a few blogs, including my own, is simply no substitute for serious reviews (in real journals by reputable critics with some literary expertise, some critical thinking skills and some theological chops, and not the rantings of anybody who claims to have discernment or is a self-appointed prophet.  Note that most serious reviewers usually say that their comments and critiques are no substitute for reading the book yourself, and talking amongst trusted friends.

(A hopefully relevant aside: my wife and I were once engaged in deep spiritual warfare, working hard to stay in relationship with a gal who had gotten deeply brainwashed by an unequivocally evil cult that had ties to the occult, hoping that we might minister to her.  She told us she was not allowed to read our literature.  I asked her if she was troubled by this intellectual censorship, and, of course, she said no.  I asked her why that didn't trouble her and wondered with her whether her disinterest in whether she was being bullied by these cultists  may be a sign that, actually, she was brainwashed.  As you might guess, it wasn't a winning strategy, but I use it still when I'm talking with Mormon missionaries who come in our shop, disallowed to read.  That it doesn't bother them that somebody tells them what they are not permitted to read for themselves never ceases to astonish me.)

Secondly, it should go without saying that we need to be honest and fair.  We ought not speculate about an author's motives and should refrain from uncharitable pot-shots.  In the critical review I mentioned above they slid into a clever line they should have omitted, saying, in so many words, that Bell's hermeneutic seemed designed for "your best life now" suggesting the rather shallow and self-indulgent prosperity preaching of Joel Olsteen.  Perhaps their point was that Bell finally shares with Olsteen a view that allows one to cavalierly pick and choose whatever they like in the Scriptures, but that would be a serious charge that, if levied, would have to be proven. Does he handle the Scripture like this?  That Bell has preached passionately against the American Dream consumerism of our culture, it seemed a particularly ill-informed shot.  Similarly, they suggest that Bell simply doesn't love God enough because we must love others and God enough to be honest about Him.  Of course, that may be the implication in Bell's own book, that our traditional views of God's wrath and hell fire haven't been honest before the texts that suggest otherwise (and boy, does he list 'em!)  I did not sense in Bell's book that he felt that advocates of the traditional view don't love God enough---as his accusers said of him---although he in no uncertain terms thinks that some have portrayed God in hurtful, even vile, ways. (More on this when I describe the book.) This illustrates an important principle: it is fair to be robust and even colorful in a critique, but one ought not judge the motives or piety of an author with whom we have differences unless we have proof of our accusations or insinuations.  That is unwarranted.  Bell can say that presenting God as an eternal torturer is wrong but he dare not say that those who hold to such a view are badly motivated.  Bell's critics can reasonably say he is some sort of a Christ-centered universalist, but they can't say that he is lukewarm in his piety.  The critics of the critics can cry foul if they make unkind insinuations or unfounded claims or if they (knowingly or unknowingly) misrepresent or caricature the idea they are robustly criticizing.  However, a good portion of the long comment threads were Bell supporters whining about reasonably fair and obvious critical assessments. It isn't necessarily unkind to call a spade a spade and it isn't unloving to firmly say if you think something is untrue or Biblically unsubstantiated.

Thirdly, and this follows as a way of saying a bit more about the call to be honest and fair, and to not take potshots or punch below the belt, so to speak, we must be civil in our disagreements.  Our loud talk show radio culture has not helped us here, and both extremes of the political spectrum these days have earned enough blame to go around.  (Saying that those who disagree with Obama are racists, without evidence that this is so, or saying that those who agree with him are socialists who hate America, or suggesting some vile conspiracy behind an opponents view, or lifting less than stellar quotes out of context are too-common examples of incivility that Christians must boldly askew.)  And so, our theological conversations should not be carried on in the manner the world carries out, say, political discourse these days. We should certainly be trying to be agents of calm and clarity and gentle candor in the public square, but we should at least be exhibiting gracious civility within the faith community, eh?  

0830833099.jpgRichard Mouw's Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World (IVP; $16.00) remains for me the best book on this I have yet read.  I have gotten it out again to re-read his chapters on inter-faith conversations and his chapter "Is Hell Uncivil" as I prepared my heart to try to draft a review of Love Wins.  Mouw, as is usually the case, holds fairly conservative, traditional views, but holds them with great grace, always honest about the strengths and weaknesses of the views of others, and the strengths and weaknesses of his own impulses and conclusions.  

Here, for instance, he writes about "What's Good About Pluralism?"



Christian hearts must be open to other people.  God wants that of us.  That is what I have just been arguing.  But how open are we supposed to be? We live today in the midst of many lifestyles, many systems of thought---don't we run the risk of having our hearts pulled in so many different directions that we will finally have no center of our own?

That is an important concern.  There is much about contemporary pluralism that frightens me.  But there is also much that I find exciting from a Christian point of view.
After a good several pages outlining the dangers and benefits of engaging religious and cultural diversity, Mouw ends up with a favorite Bible text from Revelation 5 which illustrates the ethnic and cultural diversity of the heavenly chorus who honors Christ.  And then he writes, "We cannot be any less affirming in our own--more earthly--encounters with created human diversity.  To cultivate that spirit of affirmation is crucial to our growth in civility.  It is also a good way to get ready for heaven!"

Learning the habits of heart that allow us to see the good in other's arguments and positions does not mean giving up our own convictions.  In fact, Mouw has a chapter on the limits of civility called "When There is No Other Hand"  But even here, we are tempered by love, by our kindness and sense of respect shown towards others.

This humble and open spirit shapes his chapter called "The Challenge of Other Religions."  His story of his own work at advocacy for Muslim friends in the dangerous times right after 9/11 was moving.  His call for inter-religious dialogue and cooperation (even as he highlights the importance of Christ-centered evangelistic efforts) is right on.  I think there is more wisdom in this short chapter than in some whole books on the topic, and I commend it to you.

And, again, to be clear, Dr. Mouw doesn't think that interfaith conversation means compromise of essential Christian convictions.  After a string of tough questions that might be raised by others regarding his desire for interfaith friendships and mutual learning, he says,

These are not cranky questions.  They express important concerns.  I have to admit it: if entering into dialogue with Muslims means that I must be willing to set aside my belie in the uniquely redemptive work of Christ, then I cannot do it.  For me that is one of several nonnegotiable convictions.
He starts the book, in fact, with a call to convicted civility.  That is, some people have few convictions (so it is easy for them to be civil, since they don't believe much.)  Others have great conviction, but press them on others to forcefully.  He commends the balanced approach of strong convictions and decent civility. 

And, then, eventually, he gets to the subject of hell.  It seems a bit odd since so much of his book is about the deep instincts we'll need and the gracious habits of how we engage in public discourse, how we debate and discuss.  Here is is tackling (albeit briefly) a traditional Christian doctrine.  Is this doctrine itself uncivil and even if not, how can we speak of it in kind ways that are not needlessly off-putting?  (This reminds me a bit of another favorite Richard Mouw book, Calvinism at the Las Vegas Airport Making Connections in Today's World  (Zondervan; $14.99) where he tries to explain the somewhat controversial "five points of Calvinism" in a kind and gentle manner.  You know he's a generous guy when he has even written a fantastic book on what we might learn from fundamentalists, an enjoyable read called The Smell of Sawdust: What Evangelicals Can Learn from Their Fundamentalist Heritage (Zondervan; $14.99.))

In his chapter in Uncommon Decency on hell, Mouw cites a favorite Dutch theologian, G.K. Berkouwer, who wrote about the topic of hell.

 "He observes," Mouw writes, "that when a questioner asked Jesus, "Lord will only a few be saved?" Jesus began his answer with a command: "Strive to enter through the narrow door." (Luke 13:23-24).  This may seem an evasive response, says Berkouwer, but it really is not.  This is Jesus' answer to the question. We are not to understand the hereafter by speculating about the demographics or geography of heaven and hell.  The appropriate mode of understanding is to obey the will of God and to invite others to do so also."

 "Strive to enter through the narrow door."  The stakes are very high--they have eternal significance.  Caring deeply about how people respond to this imperative can be an important way of being a gentle and reverent Christian."

Well, I like Uncommon Decency and I think the chapter on hell offers four or five very good points about how best to approach the discussion.  Maybe you should order that along with Love Wins.  I'm not kidding.

Insisting on civility and fairness is itself a fairly difficult job.  (I don't know if I did it very graciously or well over at the Blogging Theologically blog.)  Still it is our job to be vigilante against sloppy thinking and unfair accusations.  Here is an example of what I mean:

I recently reviewed one of those "pro and con" books about hell (I'll describe it in my next post) written by two Bible scholars, one who argues for annihilationism while the other offered a counter-point in favor of the more traditional position on hell.  In the reply to the first author, the second names four things that first author did in his opening chapter that he thought was unhelpful.  In a section called "techniques that do not advance the debate" the second author maintained that the first used "straw man arguments"  (that is, he refuted all kinds of things that the second author himself doesn't believe, sort of going against a caricature of a view, not the real thing), he used an "argument from silence" (saying what the Bible doesn't say, rather than what it does say), he engaged in "ostentatious use of Greek" (which gives the impression of scholarly weight and privileges his argument, whether they were cogent or not) and, finally, that he used dramatic and overblown rhetoric that appealed to the emotions in manipulative ways.  Whether these criticisms of the essay of the first author are valid, the points are well taken. 

The second author then also said this:

In the interest of fair play I add one more thing.  Obviously I am not impressed by Fudge's employment of these techniques.  I will leave it to readers to judge whether Fudge has played the game according to the rule.  But in fairness to him I want to state that although these techniques do not advance the debate between us, neither do they prove Fudge wrong. Even as readers should not embrace Fudge's position because of the techniques, neither should they reject his view simply because he employs those methods.



Now that seems to me to be an admirable and even noble approach.  He warns against some under-the-table approaches that he discerns in his opponent, but even as warns against them, he says they should not, on the face of it, disqualify his opponent's argument.

Learning to think fairly and honestly, using critical thinking and rejecting faulty arguments and unfounded attacks--and sometimes calling people out on that-- is a part of what it means to "speak the truth in love."  We need to be discerning about books and we need to be discerning about the critiques offered to the books, even when those critiques come from usually reliable sources.  (And, naturally, you should take my own reviews with a grain of salt, considering them carefully, although I do appreciate being given the benefit of the doubt.  Who doesn't?)   Learning how to exercise careful consideration and how and when and where to say it is part of what it means to be wise and helpful and civil.  Of course we need to expose some bad thinking in some bad books---although in Matthew 23:23, Jesus, in telling the theologically-conservative and intellectually rigorous Pharisees what matters most, "the weightier matters of the law, justice, mercy, and faithfulness" seems to tell us what we should get most riled up about.  If Rob Bell had said, "You know, I'm not sure we should be talking about social justice quite so much as we do here at Mars Hill" do you think the righteous bloggers would have created their uproar?

Perhaps the bloggers and attackers who are shouting that Bell must be roundly condemned---one guy has as his blogging picture a barbarian with an axe!---are not interested in this sort of humane, open-minded dialogue, or Mouw's call to the the virtues of civility, or even "the weightier matters of the law".  Our bookstore has been named as a peddler of heresy already and a year ago one blogger (writing anonymously, of course) implied at her site that she advocating burning some of our books.  Since we have also gotten a veiled death threat from the KKK for our anti-racism books, I won't say it didn't scare me at first.  Yet, they are obscure and cultish. Ignore them. Sorting out the legitimate and responsible critics of Bell from the nutty ones is itself a large project.

Good folks within the body of Christ know that the church has not been on one mind about the nature of end time judgment and wrath and hell since, well, since the earliest church fathers.  And most of us realize that the Bible itself--as Bell in Love Wins makes pretty clear---can be read in a few different ways, depending which texts are taken figuratively and which ones are taken literally.  He thinks we have good reason to take literally those that teach of an inclusive salvation based on God's redemptive intentions in Christ.  Most serious Bible scholars understand that some of the talk about fire and brimstone may be metaphorical.  So church tradition and the Bible itself isn't as single-mindedly clear as some think.  Recognizing this, and admitting it, prohibits glib judgments about Bell's view.  As we try to parse this, whether we end up affirming or reforming our older views, let us do so in discussion with the church writers who have gone before us and with the whole Bible in view, with prayerful thoughtfulness, kindness, honest and grace.  Let's follow Mouw in his call for civility.

Lastly, and perhaps a bit ironically, I'll note that Mouw suggests we not talk about this too much.
Is hell uncivil?  I think not.  Hell is about God's honor and our freedom.  Those are very important issues.  To care about such things is to care about human flourishing.  But that does not mean that civil Christians should devote much time and energy to thinking and talking about hell itself.  There are more helpful ways of highlighting the importance of God's honor and human freedom.
Even though Dr. Mouw counsels that we need not devote too much time and energy to thinking about hell, it is a topic about which Jesus (and the rest of Scripture) speaks. So it is good to know what we believe and why.

To that end, I'll describe Rob Bell's book a bit in a day or so.  And I'll list a few others, too, that might be helpful, like the pro/con one I mentioned earlier.  For now, allow me to suggest this bit of advise:  no one doctrine (like salvation or hell) can be properly understood outside of a larger narrative of Biblical theology.  And while systematic theologians sometimes overstate their rigid dogmas and their air-tight logical systems---rationalistic theologyism, I call it, making an ideological idol out of their own doctrinal formulations---it does help to have a broad reading of a bit of general theology under your belt before diving seriously into any specific sub-topic.  Just because we may be tempted to turn our theology into a hammer to bludgeon others, or an idol, even, doesn't mean we shouldn't humbly study it.  We should and we must.

So, rather than diving into the Rob Bell's Love Wins book itself, at first, at least, if you haven't read this sort of stuff before, may I suggest, for instance, something like these. 

jesus-wants-to-save-christians.jpgJesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile  Rob Bell & Don Golden (Zondervan)  $19.99  This is a controversial book, and I think an important foundation for reading Love Wins.  This is mostly a Biblical study, sort of Bell's take---in his Nooma-esque writing style---on how the whole Biblical narrative leads us to a counter-imperial view, great reversals, and the coming of the reign of God "on Earth as it is in heaven."  He seems to have been reading Colossians Remixed (by Brian Walsh & Sylvia Keesmaat) and Evil and the Justice of God by N.T Wright and maybe Dom Crossan; certainly this might appeal to those who liked Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw.   Whether you agree with all of his politics of empire or not, you will learn much from this feisty overview of the Bible, showing God's intention to bring restoration and healing to an unjust, broken world.

41604_86559675245_3755_n.jpgDon't Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Isn't Enough  Michael E. Witmer (Zondervan) $16.99  Here, Witmer offers a critique of the emergent and missional tendency to minimize doctrine and to follow "in the way of Jesus."  "Not creeds, but deeds" an earlier liberalism professed. This is a fabulous book on the significance of doctrine, the role of belief, the uniquenesses of the Christian truth claims, and the wholistic vision of knowing and doing, faith and action, doctrine and discipleship.  I believe this book really ought to be better known and I cannot say enough good about it.  I liked his previous Heaven Is a Place on Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters to God, about a wholistic Christian worldview, quite a lot.  This one is hard-hitting but very fair.  Very well done.  

What's Theology Got to Do With It? Convictions, Vitality and the Church  Anthony B. Robinson (Alban Institute) $18.00  Tony is a beloved and wise UCC pastor who you may know from writing in The Christian Century.  He invites those in mainline congregations (and others, I'd think) to good conversations about what matters most.  He makes a good case that doctrine, in fact, does matter, and can be explored in life-giving ways in our local parishes.  This would be a fine study for an adult class, asking good questions in practical ways for ordinary church folk.

Head Heart Hands: Bringing Together Christian Thought, Passion and Action  Dennis Hollinger (IVP) $15.00  Some of us are drawn to highly intellectual engagement, thinking about the Christian mind, theology and such.  Others are passionate about the inner life, things of the heart, spiritual formation and sensing God's affections.  Still others are quite willing to minimize theology and spirituality in order to get busy, living out mission in action.  As you might guess, this book not only affirms the importance of all three, but insists that without all three---a faith of the head, heart and hands--we are not just imbalanced, but woefully unfaithful.  I think any doctrinal dispute (like the Rob Bell controversy) must be entered from this viewpoint that it matters what we think, how we feel and what we do.  This is brilliant stuff!

Dug Down Deep: Unearthing What I Believe and Why It Matters Joshua Harris 
dug-down-deep-frontcover.jpg (Multnomah) $19.99  This author became a bit famous as a home-school youngster who wrote a popular (if a bit odd, in my view) book on dating a decade ago.  As he matured in faith and became a pastor he realized the need to determine more fully and deeply what he believed.  This is a wonderful story of his learning about conservative Calvinist theology.  He's wise to invite us to this important journey.

Letters to a Young Calvinist: An Invitation to the Reformed Tradition  James K.A. Smith (Baker) $14.99  I named this as one of the books of the year, inviting readers (including those that are neither young nor Calvinist) to this series of gentle pastoral letters, slowly nurturing some of the new-Calvinists into a broader Reformed worldview.  I love these gracious, informative, wise, short missives. They are good reminders of the way theology can be helpful, why knowing stuff like this is important, and how to be discerning about what's most important.  While you're at it, read anything else this guy writes!

NotTheWay-01.jpgNot the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin  Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Eerdmans) $22.00  Some of our customers have said this is among their all time favorite books.  If we are going to study the doctrine of hell, if we are wondering about God's wrath, then it is essential we reflect on the nature of sin.   Plantinga is an elegant writer, drawing on classic old books and contemporary films, wisely offering some very relevant reflections. This is without a doubt the best book on the topic.  Wow.

Your Church is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ's Mission is Vital for the Future of the Church John Armstrong (Zondervan) $19.99  I'm sort of on a roll, here, now, but this book really is relevant.  I've reviewed it before and named it as one of the most important books of 2010.  Armstrong is a generous-minded evangelical, seriously Reformed and deeply committed to global ecumenism. (For what it is worth he was somewhat inspired in this by a powerful call to such unity by a serious essay by the earnest and respected Puritan scholar, Anglican J. I. Packer.)  We are so glad to read a Biblically-solid defense of working towards rapprochement within the divided body of Christ and this reminder of the wide nature of the church could be a good reminder even as we debate particular theological ideas. I recommend subscribing to his blog which always is written with charity and humility.    Very nicely done.

The Body Broken: Answering God's Call to Love One Another Robert Benson (Waterbrook) $9.99)  I've raved before in these pages about the sweet writing of this fine author, and how much I enjoy all of his books.  He's written several books on prayer, one on Benedictine insights about neighborliness and community, a great one on home gardening, and maybe The Game, his baseball one, would be good to commend about now---we can't get too angry with one another if we are thinking about that great American pastime, can we?  Here, though, The Body Broken, is perhaps his most tender and serious one, a lament about the divisions in the Body.  He works, mostly, in spiritual direction, so, even as a Protestant, he ends up staying at Catholic retreat centers.  He cannot receive Eucharist, of course, and this grieves him in quiet and responsible ways.  This is a very, very good book, part memoir, part meditation on the unity (and disunity) within the Body.  Again, it seems to me that how we engage in theological debates might be softened if we had this sad and deeply moving and strangely hopeful book under our belts.  I suppose that those most interesting in high-octane heresy-hunting won't be drawn to this, but one can wish.  And hope.  It is a good book by a good man.

9780830834495.jpgLove One Another: Becoming the Church Jesus Longs For  Gerald Sittser (IVP) $15.00  This is a considerably revised edition of an earlier book by the wonderful and wise author of A Grace Disguised (the best book on grief I've ever read, and our best-seller in our consolation section of the shop.)  Here, he invites us---liberals and conservatives, amongst others---to handle our church conflicts in a way that is truly loving.  Eugene Peterson says of it that it will "develop spiritual maturity."  We agree.  There is solid Biblical meat here and we really ought to take it to heart.  It is stuff most of us know, I'd guess, but we need a sustained, serious reminder and explication.  Very highly recommended!

Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World  Richard J. Mouw (IVP) $16.00  Didn't I list this one already?  Well, maybe you missed it above, so I have to list it again. It is the internet, after all, and you're probably just skimming.  Ha.  I can't tell you how important I think this is.  Please get it, and give it away when your done.  Spread the word---whether we are debating politics or theology, writing letters to the editor about the tea party or blogging about Rob Bell, debating sexual ethics or thinking about hell, this guide to public manners and how to be fair-minded and civil  is simply a must-read.

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March 16, 2011

Bellapalooza: a bit more on the Rob Bell Love Wins controversy. Bring on the (civil) critiques and four cavaets.

Oh my, my friends.  I outlined yesterday some virtues and practices for civil discourse---how to "speak the truth in love"---and I'm really, really appreciative of the kind remarks folks have made.  One friend wondered, though, if my call to civility would have the unintended consequence of obscuring serious critique, in this case, of Rob Bell's heterodox views of hell and God's judgment.  If you saw the comment thread, you'll see that I admitted the concern is a fair one, but not particularly relevant here.  Richard Mouw's book, Uncommon Decency (InterVarsity Press; $16.00) that I so commended, says (as I pointed out) that we need both conviction and civility.  We must always debate fairly and honestly and kindly, I said, but, as Mouw puts it, there are "limits to civility."  He has a chapter called "When There is No Other Hand" about those times when on-going dialogue and pleasantness is inadequate to the demands of honest protest.

Is this now a time to stop being polite and bluntly protest the dangerous ideas of Mr. Bell's book?  I don't think so.  I do not intend to obscure differences about his ideas or suggest we dare not make judgments as we engage in endless nice conversation, but I do not think it is wrong to exercise some patience as we debate this complicated theological matter and hear each other out.   Bell is not the first to write about this and he will not be the last.  Welcome to Living Theology 101.

(That this sort of evolving "living" process of (re)formulation of God's ways was going on in thesmall group picture new.png Old Testament---the Hebrew prophets sometimes altered the demands of the law, or re-emphasized new portions---and in the New Testament, too, is itself a helpful thing to recall as various writers used and re-used Older Testament quotes, appropriating them in what we might call creative ways.  Note how Jesus, in his inaugural sermon in Luke 4 deleted the line he was quoting from Isaiah about the vengeance of the Lord.  And think of the stunningly revolutionary way they heard the new things the Spirit was saying to the group of Jews gathering in the Jerusalem council in Acts 15.  Or that dream that changed everything for Peter.   Living Theology, indeed!)

So, theology is sometimes a bit messy and we don't all agree. It is obviously vital for us all to explore what we believe and why and how it does or doesn't fit in to the ongoing story of redemptive history;  we should have some room to explore ideas, I'd say; our respect for others (even if we think they are off-base) and the practice of gracious hospitality demand a bit of that.  I hope you have a community that encourages honest conversations around serious study of the Biblical texts and that you can take up this conversation face-to-face.  We need not fear questions.  Of course this needs to be civil, but it also needs to be real. One influential blogger today suggested there is a difference between fair questions and a spirit of constant questioning. Well, fair enough, but what do we do with one who has endless questions, who can't quite take the standard position?  Tell her, eventually, to shut up or go to hell?  I don't think so.

As you can see, I'm still thinking about the ways in which Bell's book has been evaluated these past weeks; interested, as I said in the last post, in the conversation about the book as much as the book.  

Below is a link to a 3 minute example that I found a touch unsettling.  It is well worth watching.  The interviewer on MSNBC asks some tough questions of Bell, and I think they are fair.  But near the end, he says something very critical about the quality of the book and Rob's bad intent and says something like "isn't that true?"  Bell says no it isn't and the guy doesn't bat an eye, and continues on as the interview turns towards hostile interrogation.  It raised good questions but I felt it was a tad smarmy and needlessly confrontational.  And then a couple of friends with whom I was emailing criticized Bell for being vague, while I was reeling for the odd tone of the questioner. Interesting, eh, these differing perceptions.



A common trope against Bell is that he's watering down the gospel in order to make it culturally palatable and a few say that in terse comments after the video clip.  Now that is a good case study: I do not think that is a fair accusation and violates the principle that it is uncivil to impugn the motives of someone without warrant.  His teaching may be having the effect of watering down Bible truths (although he doesn't see it that way) but he nowhere says "let's do away with some stuff because it isn't cool enough for our postmodern culture."  So the comments carrying this unfounded accusation at the post are also troubling. The video is a helpful window into the controversy.

Watch it here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vg-qgmJ7nzA

Another very interesting, thorough, and important critical review comes from Kevin DeYoung over at the Gospel Coalition site.  I really liked his excellent book Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion and a book he recently did on the beloved Heidelberg Catechism, The Good News We Almost Forgot. I respect him as a passionate, youthful, conservative, Reformed pastor and writer. I need to reply to a bit of his strong critique, will use it as a bit of a case study, and will mention it again in my own review of Love Wins tomorrow.  For now, I suggest you print it out if you have to, get a cup of coffee, and settle in for a lengthy assessment.  You may want to bring your Bible.  He doesn't use his sense of humor much, but he gets credit for, in another place, calling this whole business a Bellapolooza.

Bell was on ABCs Good Morning America and it was interesting how the question of the horrific disaster in Japan came up right away; does a good God allow just evil and then consign the nonChristians to hell?  Rob doesn't give a quick answer--could you be quick on your feet on national television?---but you get a sense of his view and where he goes in this good clip:

Watch it here:
http://abcnews.go.com/gma/oncall/video/home-ready-japan-style-earthquake-13138885&tab=9482931&section=1206833

Read it here:
http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2011/03/14/rob-bell-love-wins-review/

* * *

So.  Last night I wrote a reflection here at BookNotes on Christian civility, a recognition of
0830833099.jpg disagreements within the Body of Christ and I listed a few books reminding us of both legs of Ephesians 4:15: truth and love.  If you are just tuning in, I hope you go back and read that.  I suggested that the Bellapolooza firestorm of nasty comments about Bell and the many equally nasty comments back---including some making unwarranted accusations without having read the book, or snarky ones like "Bell, read your Bible!"---was an indication of a shallow and inappropriate sort of discourse, a style of engagement that isn't helped by our fast-paced lifestyles, 24/7 talk news channels which model vitriolic debate, or the Web 2.0 "cult of the amateur."  I mentioned the importance of the recent Nicholas Carr book, The Shallows, regarding this internet milieu.  In this hot-wired age it is hard to do slow reading, to offer careful consideration and to submit to a humble "hermeneutic of love."  I hope my suggestions for fair play didn't just add to the noise or further the courseness of our public discussions.  Hey, at least I wrote a lot, and didn't just do a tweet.  Ha.

I've continued to reflect on the book Uncommon Decency.  The good doctor call us to "convicted civility" and offers winsome wisdom on how to disagree with Christian gracefulness, warning us against "angry rhetoric" and rejecting "the crusading spirit."

I wish I could quote more, but here is an excerpt:

Getting cured of incivility means learning how to speak more honestly.  But I have insisted that civility runs deeper than words.  It is grounded in the way we view reality.  This means that we Christians must work to view things---as far as possible for mere mortals---the way God does.

Psalm 139 is one of my favorite biblical passages.  It's filled with awe in the presence of the divine holiness.  But it also contains what strikes me as a delightful and instructive little drama.   For eighteen marvelous verse the writer extols the mysteries of God's knowledge and power.  Then he gets so overwhelmed by this spiritual exercise that he seems to slip into a crusading spirt for a few verses;

    Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
          And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
    I hate them with perfect hatred;
          I count them my enemies. (vv 21-22)

This is an understandable reaction, and in a sense it is perfectly legitimate.  God's majesty is so awesome that everything else pales in comparison.  How can we offer anything short of total commitment to such a being? Can we do anything less than hate those who hate the Lord and loathe those who rise up against him?

But abruptly the psalmist seems to catch himself.  He senses that it is rather presumptuous for a creature such as he to pretend to have either the knowledge or the integrity to posses a "perfect hatred" of unrighteousness.  So he pleads, not for the defeat of the hosts of wicked ones, but for a correcting grace that will reach into the depths of his own being.

    Search me, O God, and know my heart;
         test me and know my thoughts.
    See if there is any wicked way in me,
         and lead me in the way everlasting.  (vv 23-24)

This is where a proper view of reality begins: in our own awareness of the divine gaze.  The Lord not only hears all--he sees all.  He knows not only our habits of speech; he sees the hearts in which those habits are formed.  Christian discipleship is permeated by the consciousness that we live coram Deo---before the face of God.

I wonder if our discourse might be more chastened if we nurtured the quiet and slow spiritual
godaloneisenough.jpg disciplines that remind us that we are coram Deo?  Perhaps contemplative time with God being shaped into the character of Christ whose image we are to bear, might calm us a bit.  It might give us greater passion for justice and truth, too, but it may make us "poor in spirit."   You know, it seems that some of the zealous Puritans who like that phrase coram Deo sometimes don't write in a way that illustrates that they've been with the God whose holiness they so love to remind us of.  And it seems that some of the hipster Bell supporters seem to be so enamored with the marketing package--the Love Wins plasticine cover design is pretty cool---that they hardly sound like they care about holiness at all.  Or humility,  or any of what Greg Spencer has called in a recent book, "the quieter virtues."  Maybe if we regularly whisper the Jesus Prayer---Lord have mercy on me, a sinner---it might shape how we do our critiques.  And I say this to myself, as well.


screen-shot-2011-02-26-at-1-49-55-pm.pngI have to admit I am nervous about talking about Love Wins.  I don't want to get it wrong (in style or substance) and I know I'm going to lose respect and business because of it, one way or the other. There are several important reasons (and some unimportant ones) why evangelical folks get riled up by discussions of heaven and hell;  all the best theologians and all the major creedal documents are pretty explicit about hell (the Apostle and Nicene Creeds less so, interestingly.)  Before describing this passionate, interesting, and in many ways perplexing book which takes issues with the standard views, I just have to offer a few more random notes.  Sorry.

Firstly, I thought I was clear, but since a few have asked, I will assert (as I did above)  that it is absolutely appropriate to speaking firmly with conviction when one believes with good reasons that an idea or book is unfaithful to Biblical truth, that it cannot be seen as consistent with the Biblical story.  Even though we must avoid (as I outlined last night) unwarranted insinuations and cheap shots, to painstakingly critique the truthfulness of an author's teaching is certainly appropriate and sometimes called for.  Not every bad book is worthy---bad enough or interesting enough---to be taken seriously enough to deserve a hard-hitting critique.  I think Bell is important enough to be taken seriously and those that have dismissed him cavalierly are unwise.

So, yes,  I am legitimizing firm rebuke.  If one needs reminding, just read the prophets for crying out loud, or a few pages from the battles of Jesus (usually with the Pharisees, an important textual cue to seeing much of this debate, or so it seems to me.) 

4 caveats.

It's just a book.  As a bookseller I do what I do because I believe in the power of the printed page, the influence of books (for better or worse) and the importance of the ideas they carry.  This is my bread and butter, so do not misunderstand.  Not a day goes by that I do not talk about the significance of good books and the danger of bad ones.  

I love that great forward to Robert Heilbroner's The Worldly Philosophers where he talks about the serious influence and suffering caused by economists who

by all the rules of schoolboy history books were nonentities: they commanded no armies, sent no men to their deaths, ruled no empires, took little part in history-making decisions....but what they did was more decisive for history than many acts of statesmen who basked in brighter glory, often more profoundly disturbing than the shuttling of armies back and forth across frontiers, more powerful for good and bad that the edicts of kings and legislatures.  It was this: they shaped and swayed men's minds.
The Noble Prize-winner continues,

And because he who enlists a man's mind wields a power even greater than the sword or scepter, these men shaped and swayed the world.  Few of them ever lifted a finger in action; they worked, in the main, as scholars---quietly, inconspicuously, and without much regard for what the world had to say about them.
He tells of how they "left in their train shattered empires and exploded continents... not because they plotted mischief, but because of the extraordinary power of their ideas."  

The extraordinary power of their ideas.

I still use the old adage a mentor taught me years ago "ideas have legs."  Or, as Calvin Seerveld noted, perhaps some "grow legs."  So I do not underestimate the power of words, the deadly influence of ideas in books.  Still: Love Wins is just a book with an overblown subtitle.  Few people will build their whole worldview around this short and punchy essay by Rob Bell.  Many will have their minds made up before they approach it and I doubt it will rock the world much.  Even his own congregation in Grand Rapids is debating his views, so the conversation, the context of the social interactions, the discourse about the book is a major aspect of the phenomenon and may be as important as the text itself.  It is not the apocalypse, it just isn't, so lighten up just a bit.

By their fruits ye shall know them.  Jesus did say this, you know, in Matthew 7:16.  And, one of the clearest teaching about the final judgment spoken by our Lord is found in Matthew 25, which unequivocally asks a tough question about our commitment to living out Micah 6:8, Amos 5, Isaiah 58, Jeremiah 22:16 and so many other Scriptures insisting that if we don't serve the poor and stand up for justice we simply aren't as spiritual or as right as we think.  Campolo is correct when he jokes "This stuff is on the final." 

sr-nancys-words1.pngSo here's a question: Does the inclusive vision of Bell's invitation to live in presence of a fully loving God, His understanding of the mercy at the heart of the reign of God over a being-restored creation, lead to greater service to the poor, to more fruitful mission, to deepening examples of solidarity with the hurting?  Does it bear that kind of fruit?  Jesus asks us to ask that question.   And are his critics known for these very things, or not?  I've said and linked to what I think is one of the best critiques of Love Wins I've seen by Kevin DeYoung, a good pastor from a good church also in Michigan.  Perhaps I am mistaken, but he seems to minimize Bell's concern for the sins of war, assaults against women, oil spills and other violent injustices (he says these "vices" are "well known" which isn't the sort of thing said by those whose hearts are broken by these sorts of things.)  Has his church been involved in working against torture or stopping the grinding third world debt crisis or justice for women or with the homeless?  I don't know, of course, but Bell's church is known for these things.  It would be an over-statement to say "ignore anybody who critiques Rob Bell's theology if they aren't at least as faithful at living out Matthew 25 as he and Mars Hill are" but not by too much.  I didn't make up that line about fruit.

Who cares?  Rob Bell---and others who are working on alternative understandings of hell and judgement, rethinking the best way to understand the Biblical texts about wrath, reframing notions of propitiation and penal sacrifice and such---insist that these traditional views are a stumbling block, that the toxic nature of that particular way of telling the story of redemption and the seemingly violent God behind it have turned off a "staggering number" (as Bell puts it) of sensitive and subsequently unchurched people.  In his critique, DeYoung counters that a "staggering number" want the straight-up, unvarnished truth, the way he preaches it, presumably.

I'm just not so sure.  Liberals like Spong & Borg, post-evangelicals McLaren & Bell, and emergent guys like Pagitt & Jones, all suggest in their own way that a major reason young adults drift from the church is because of their distaste for evangelicalism's antiquated doctrines and judgmentalism.  Even the must-read Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity....and Why It Matters (David Kinneman & Gabe Lyons) moves along these lines, using some research.  Frankly, this just isn't my experience.  Is it really yours?  I think that most unchurched folks just don't care much about the God of the Bible, don't find going to worship all that interesting or meaningful and generally don't know much about church life or orthodox theology, one way or the other.  They aren't really rejecting classic doctrine as it isn't even on their radar screen.  

American-Gothic1.jpgMostly, I think, their imaginations and ways of life are captured by other stories. Walter Brueggemann (in The Bible Makes Sense) calls these other seductive stories either the "Modern-Industrial Scientific" one or the "Existentialist" model, more or less corresponding to cultural conservatives and cultural liberals, rationalists and romantics, although he shows that both are increasingly co-opted by and pretty much shaped by the religion of consumerism.  Francis Schaeffer simply warned of "personal peace and affluence" blinding people to much else other their own happiness.  In the brilliant analysis The Trouble With Paris: Following Jesus in a World of Plastic Promises Mark Sayers shows how media-driven "hyper-reality" convinces us to search for personal fulfillment in things that are "better than the real thing" which has become a folk religion, a framing narrative for our age.  Or, as the Indigo Girls song wryly puts it, some just want "cold beer and remote control."  Even for the conscientious, as The Edge puts it in U2s rumination on information overload, we are just "Numb."

Bell makes a case that his telling of the gospel is, besides being most deeply Biblical, is, after all,  a "better story." Critics retort that (a) it isn't a better story if it ain't true and (b) traditional teachings about God's glory, sovereign grace, wrath averted and limited atonement are a much better story anyway.  This is a very important debate--we have to get the contours and details of the Bible Story right---but my sense is that neither are all that compelling to the world, mostly because few people care---they are living by the scripts given them by the North American culture and worldview, reinforced by "secular liturgies" as James Smith's extraordinary Desiring the Kingdom puts it. 

Most of us probably know some people who have been turned off by their perception of harsh religion, and Bell has admittedly attracted some of those damaged by negative sorts of fundamentalism. (Watch the fabulous Bullhorn Nooma DVD as he talks about how this pushy, unfriendly guy yelling about hellfire into his bullhorn isn't helpful in Bell's own effort to talk about Jesus with his unchurched friends; they think he is so scary and weird--and he is.)  Bell, importantly, brings some of those who have been hurt into the narrative of the book---more on that tomorrow.  But I suspect that he overstates how many spiritually-abused, set-free-from-toxic-faith victims of hurtful religion he really encounters.  Some people just go to Mars Hill because they like the light show or his cool glasses or the hip music or the non-liturgy.  (I am not all that cynical, really, just saying what I suppose most mega-church leaders are very aware of themselves.)  Of course we have to seriously care for those who are victims of legalism and fundamentalist narrowness and it is to Bell's credit that he is able to help create a safe place for spiritual refugees and exiles.  That is a great grace and to be affirmed.  Still, I don't think that most folks run from the gospel because they fear fundamentalists.  Most folks just don't care, or even know about, much of this.

Framing the debate around this "we have to tell a better story to attract victims of those scared by teachings about hell and damnation" or "we have to teach conservative Reformed theology because people want the unvarnished truth" allows both camps to think that their views are more culturally weighty than they probably are.



So here I am, writing about this at a local coffee-shop.  I'm sitting here pondering all this and just now in walks a somewhat frazzled, apparently single father, buying something creamy and fruity for his two little daughters.  A lovely and graceful woman came up to them, bringing cookies she just bought to the kids, and told the man her story of raising children after a divorce (or a spouses death or something, I couldn't quite make it out.)  She handed him a card.  Now I don't know if he most liked her high heels and perky haircut or the free cookies or the kind words of great encouragement she spoke: you don't have to do this alone.  She reminded him of the card telling of a support group (a Christian ministry?) that he could attend to draw strength and guidance and find friends.  I heard her say, again, that there is hope.  I do not think that the working class dad, the two kiddos, or the support group evangelist gave one whit about Kevin DeYoung's or my thoughts about Rob Bell or what Rob Bell thinks about hell.  Let's just keep this in perspective.  The book may be interesting to read and important to debate, but we are fooling ourselves if we think many people care.

We are not saved by our ability to describe salvation properly. And the corollary, one's salvation is not usually in danger due to theological error.  In yesterday's post I noted that I have a heart for--as Jesus surely does in a depth I cannot comprehend---ecumenical efforts towards Christian unity.  I mentioned good books on this like John Armstrong's Your Church Is Too Small and Robert Benson's The Body Broken.  It is just unacceptable to say that mainline Protestants or Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholics or the currently persecuted Egyptian Copts (not to mention radical Anabaptists, historic black church folk, Latino Pentecostals or Joel Olsteen's cheery TV congregants) are somehow not a valid part of the Body of Christ, are not true Christians.  Bell perhaps embarrasses himself when he says that Origen, whose views on hell were roundly denounced, or the Platonist Clement of Alexandria, say, represent the "deep, wide, and diverse stream" of "historic, orthodox, Christian faith."  But his impulse to take a wide, long view is correct.

Some of the harshest critics of Love Wins seem to suggest that if you can't articulate the five points of Calvinism or don't use their particular rubric for selecting the most pertinent texts and their proper interpretations or if you unwittingly endorse a lame false doctrine, or are part of a denomination whose national headquarters published something questionable, you may not be a real Christian. 

This over-emphasis on knowing and saying the right stuff about doctrinal formulations marginalizes folk from other denominations and traditions who explain their faith differently or don't sound in their style of talking about their convictions the way they should.  Some may even sing the hymns that DeYoung describes as so meaningful to his flock and---imagine!--- they may not resonate with the lines he cites (about wrath averted, say.)  Or they may sing completely different hymns with a somewhat different orientation.  I know some Christians who find Good Friday services much more deeply moving than upbeat Easter ones.  Should I wrinkle up my nose and say they must not understand the victory of God?  Ethnicity, culture and denominational tradition play a large influence here, too, and we'd be wise to attend to how that happens (and why it isn't being mentioned in the Bell brouhaha.)  Dare we think ill of others if their experience of God and testimony of their understanding of grace is a bit unlike what the critics, the guardians of orthodoxy, describe, or if their liturgical habits or ethnicity have shaped them to talk about faith in somewhat different terms?  I think it is wrong to just naturally jump to the uncharitable conclusion that this means others have "another gospel" that must be rebuked; this default position to be against others who name the name of Christ if their understanding or expression is different than ours is wrong-headed.  Again, Jesus most often affirmed the theologically inarticulate and blasted the doctrinal know-it-alls. Authentic faith is pre-theoretical trust not theological precision, so as interested as we should be in God-glorifying, Christ-exalting, Kingdom-bringing, historically-shaped, Biblically-proper doctrine, the variety of  ways of doing that and getting it said is to be provisionally affirmed, not fought.  Those who understand this, I think, will approach Bell's book with a bit more willingness to listen appreciatively rather than to only scrutinize it for error.

I think the severe critiques of Bell offered all over the internet not only privilege certain denominations in ways that erode an honorable concern about ecumenicity but they obviously privilege the theologically well-read and maybe the left-brained to boot.  Again, do not misunderstand me here: I believe in theological education and theological debate (and love selling books to well-educated book lovers!)  But let's be honest---many admirably serious and deeply pious and significantly faithful followers of Jesus simply have never been exposed to the systematic theology (or exegetical tools) demanded by critics like DeYoung.  Heck, though-out most of church history, and, globally, today, most Christians can't even read!  This does not leave authors (in this case, Rob Bell) off the hook, of course and it would be goofy if you think I'm saying that.  It does remind us, though, that this exceptionally detailed line by line analysis as done by DeYoung, an analysis I have read carefully with great appreciation and have commended to you, is not the sort of thing most people do.

 If somebody picks up Bell's easy-to-read book and likes it, it will not most likely threaten her soul or her salvation.  We are, let's be clear, saved by the saving grace offered at the initiation of the Triune God, not through our ability to formulate proper assertions about how it happens.  

It is for this reason that I have reservations with Rev. DeYoung's studious piece.  He is to be thanked for a careful reading of Bell and for his passionate convictions and often-helpful warnings.  I have chosen to comment upon it because it is worthy of our consideration and is a major contribution to the discourse about Love Wins.  I think he is mostly correct and I share many of his concerns, even if I would have wished for a bit more nuance at times, and a bit more affirmation of some of the good stuff that Bell says.  But then there is that Big Ending on the last page.  With the obvious truism that "bad theology hurts real people" and the reminder that he fights this fight for truth as a pastor who cares about "real people in East Lansing" DeYoung then insists why this is so important.  He claims that "suffering or salvation, heaven or hell may hang in the balance."

Friends, the apostle Paul uses his most forceful rebuking language (in Galatians 1:6-9 and famously in Galatians 5:12) for those who teach any other gospel, who insist there is something else to do other than receive God's grace shown in Christ.  And this claim that imprecise theological speculation can lead you to hell is, I believe, approaching a very close form of "another gospel."  We are not saved by (theological) works, or any kind of works (lest anyone should boast of getting it right, I think I hear Ephesians 2:8 saying.)  I don't know if Bell is right that love always wins, but I know this much: God is not going to smite you if you read Love Wins, not even if you mostly like it.  Your eternal suffering is not so much at stake here, regardless of the huffing and puffing of the good pastor.  Doctrinal certainty (which I'm mostly for) does not prove you are saved any more than doctrinal doubts consign you to hell.  I presume that DeYoung agrees.  That overwrought Big Ending is just foolishness, the redutionism of theologyism run amok.



Read the sentences before the last one, though; DeYoung offers good advice.

"Is Love Wins true to the word of God?  Open a Bible, pray to God, listen to the faithful Christians of the past, and answer the question for yourself."


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March 18, 2011

Love Wins Review: A Long Part 1

Love Wins Review: Part One

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne; $22.99) by Grand Rapids Mars Hill pastor Rob Bell, as you surely know by now, is a controversial book.  It is less clear and more controversial than it would have needed to have been about some things, it is very clear about some other things and, as most fair-minded reviewers have noted, it is a very mixed bag.  Those who don't like paradox or living with tensions may find it unbearably inconsistent, but for those willing to host a bit of messy uncertainty and head-scratching complexity, it is a very memorable read.

It remains uncertain to me if Bell has moved beyond what can reasonably called evangelical, or even orthodox.  Although it does not remain uncertain to others, who insist that he is scandalous and dangerous. Some say he is a heretic, others say he is heterodox, which is just shy of heresy.  Or, as non-universalistic evangelical Richard Mouw writes, Bell has written "a fine book...I basically agree with his theology."  Here Eugene Peterson explains why he has on the book's dust jacket an endorsement stating Bell does not "compromise an inch of evangelical conviction", which even I find to be a bit of well-intended rhetorical flourish.

 A very helpful overview of the whole conversation is nicely described in an essential piece by Christianity Today's Mark Galli, ("Heaven Hell and Rob Bell: Putting the Pastor in Context") noting that Bell's approach to judgment and hell---seemingly a Christ-centered universalism, although Bell specifically does not use the U word---is not all that new; from a few early church leaders to the estimable Karl Barth to maybe C.S. Lewis (and to his beloved George MacDonald) and, in a qualified manner of speaking, right up to evangelical statesman John Stott, the conclusion that God's love will melt the hardest hearts (or extinguish them in death without eternal anguish) is not novel or new.  I do hope you'll read the CT report as it is the best background piece I've read and very informative.

To say the conclusions of Love Wins aren't new doesn't excuse it if it is wrong, of course. (And, it is important to recall, as Russell Moore, in an excellent and fascinating critique called "The Blood-Drained Gospel of Rob Bell" observes, that even where it has been accepted, "every church that embraced universalism had died out, whithering away from the gospel.")   Still, keeping it in perspective that this has been an on-going conversation may lower reader's expectations that it presents something really innovative and out-of-the-box crazy.  It doesn't.   As Bell puts it, "It's a wide stream we're swimming in."  And like it or not, all we can say is "Ain't that the truth!"

Bell says in the preface, "If this book, then, does nothing more than introduce you to the ancient, ongoing discussion surrounding the resurrected Jesus in all its vibrant, diverse, messy, multi-voiced complexity---well, I'd be thrilled." 

INFORMED CIVILITY
In my two previous posts I've suggested that you watch the TV interviews, read the early Tim Challies & Aaron Armstrong critique (and, if you can find it in the comments posted at Armstrong's Blogging Theologically, my reply naming ways I think they misrepresented the book.)  I recommended the lengthy and passionate critique by Kevin DeYoung, an expose of what DeYoung insists is shoddy history and an "indefensible" misuse of Scripture.  There is a lot of trash talk on the internet, but some of these critiques are well worth reading, and they do a different sort of job than I am able to, so I recommend them.  In fact, just to get you thinking even more, see an imagined alternative promo script in this brief send up (it isn't exactly a parody) of Bell's initial Love Wins promo video.  It won't make as much sense if you haven't seen the Bell video as it takes many of his exact phrases, reversing them in an illuminating way.  It is called "Justice Wins."

I expressed my disagreements with DeYoung in my last post but I will say this right away as well: he demolishes some of Bell's interpretations of Bible passages and opines that

Bell has a reputation for being brilliant and creative, and he probably is in certain spheres.  But his use of Scripture exhibits neither characteristic.  In fact, it is naive, literalistic biblicism.  He flattens everything, either to make traditional theology sound ridiculously inconsistent or to make a massive point from one out-of-context verse.  He makes no attempt to understand metaphors, genre, or imagery (either in Scripture or in his grandmother's painting.)  He does not try to harmonize anything that might rot his fresh take on the Bible.  He loves Jewish background and context, but he shows very little familiarity with the actual story-line and the shape of the Old Testament.  His style may be engaging to some, but look up the passages for yourself and then pick up a reputable study Bible or a basic commentary series.  You'll seriously question Bell's use of Scripture.
Hmmm.  Harsh words, and I am not sure I think it is fair without some qualifications; I am not just being civil when I ask if this might be more honest if it said "sometimes" and "often" and "on some occasions" amidst some of the huge allegations.  I cannot adjudicate this for you, so you will simply have to read it for yourself and keep an eye out for the bad stuff DeYoung warns about.  I do have sympathies with his concerns, though, even if I feel DeYoung himself does a bit "flattening of everything" that Bell says, perhaps with a bit of "naive and literalistic reading" as well, where the critic makes a "massive point from an out-of-context" line or two.

So, I hope you have read my last two long posts, both about rules for engagement and guidelines for Christian civility and some ruminations on ways this matters and doesn't matter much.  The ugliness on the internet around this book, especially in comment threads, is a sad sign of the times and if we are going to be critical of Bell, we must also be critical of those who have expressed vitriol and arrogance. This is not saying (as I have repeatedly said) that we ought not offer critique, but it is a call for fairness and kindness, for deepening the art of Christian disagreement, conflict resolution, and insightful book reviewing.

For those who don't think Rob minds the dust-up all that much, since he is "laughing his way to the bank" and loves being the center of controversy, I would wager that you are seriously mistaken.  I do not think Bell is happy to be misunderstood and marked as evil and I do not think the Lord Jesus who said "by this all will know...that you love one another" is happy with this shameful fiasco.  Those who chided me for overstating the call to civility are wrong (and yes, a few of you are among my closest friends, so we've already had this conversation.)  John 13:35 is unequivocal: by this all will know that we are true Christians: that we love one another---not that we were spot on this or that doctrinal formulation or exegetical effort.  As I hope you know, Francis Schaeffer, in his marvelous little classic The Mark of a Christian (IVP) carried this to the next nearly unbelievable step: John 14:21.  God says that the world has the right to disbelief the claims of Jesus if we do not show visible unity.  Love is, indeed, "the final apologetic."

MY AMBIVALENCE
I guess I have to admit to my ambivalence with the really strong critics because, to be honest, I didn't scribble "no way" or "impossible" or "ugh!" or even plaster too many question marks on every page of my advanced copy, the way DeYoung and Moore and others surely must have.  There are a few real boners, a few serious gaffes, and a line or two I just crossed out.  And a lot more I wish he would have said.  (And sometimes think the most inner circle of hell is surely for those who don't have good footnotes, but I'll let that slide.)   Most of it was pretty good and some was great.  More importantly, it is very, very interesting that these two evangelical Presbyterian heroes of mine, Christian leaders and PhD-ed intellectuals who are obviously much sharper than I, gentleman I trust,  Eugene Peterson and Richard Mouw, have both said that Love Wins is well within the bounds of Biblical orthodoxy. They both were clear (I gave you the links, above) that they don't agree with all of what Bell says, or how he says it, but they are happy to celebrate it as a book very much worth reading.  Peterson and Mouw.  Well, there ya go.  

Whether you stand with the strict critics like John Piper, Justin Taylor, Kevin DeYoung and others who go hard against Bell for serious and specific doctrinal and Biblical error or you appreciate Rob's Nooma-esque effort at a culturally-relevant style that gives an appealing call to postmoderns to urgently follow Christ, the lover of all and the restorer of all creation, or fall, as I think I do, somewhere in between, I hope you are eager to learn from both sides, to use this as an opportunity to rethink some stuff.  Many readers of BookNotes are better read than I but, yet, I know many of us often have opinions we haven't through through very carefully.  So welcome to my rambling overview. 

Naturally, I suggested you buy the darn book from us (which, a few days ago, in that first post, we offered at a good discounted price) and read it for yourself.  The publisher has run out of the first edition already although we will have more in a few days, we hope.  Love Wins is thoughtful and interesting (especially if you enjoy his speaking style, like in the two dozen Nooma videos or the long-form pieces like Everything Is Spiritual, The Gods Are Not Angry, or Drops Likes Stars.)  You may find his urgent, passionate, earnest, bohemian style distracting but you should know it resonates with many thousands.  As a communicator and person (we only met once) I like him a lot.  But the point is that his ideas matter, it is beneficial to discuss them, but let's not get carried away.  Do read my post about my sense that the it isn't quite so important as some claim that it is and if you want to see why I insist that theological precision is simply not as ultimate as some seem to make it out to be.  I used the word "pre-theoretical."  Go figure.

MY TAKE ON HIS SLIGHTLY NEW TAKE
We've said that it is wise to admit that this isn't utterly new and that others have expressed this before.  I'm ambivalent, at best, but enjoyed the book if only for its verve and how it gave voice to very understandable questions that many of us have.

However,  I want to suggest something I don't think I've heard anyone else say, and it is what I've chosen to use as my contribution to the discussion: at times I think that Bell's view of God's likely defeat of a literal eternal hell is a bit new, or at at least offered in a somewhat new framing and emphasis.  His view is consistently shaped by his understanding of the reality of heaven-on-Earth and a sort of realized eschatology of new creation where literally "every single particle" is reconciled in Christ, or will be, as the Bible promises over and over.  It is not that God is too nice to punish bad people, or that people really aren't so bad--he is clear that they are and that we build plenty of hells on earth---or even that there are many ways to God---that is not his tone or teaching at all. I think his eschatological background framework and emphasis on Christ's creation-restoring work is a larger and more serious approach and one that may offer at least a new reason to revisit this ancient question.

Still, whether this frame is a bit of a new on-ramp to the questions about the "wideness of God's mercy" and the nature of heaven and hell, a brand new CT piece by Mark Galli "Rob Bell's Bridge Too Far" concludes that Bell has, in fact, gone beyond what the Bible teaches and what evangelical doctrine requires.  It is a very, very good review and I commend it to you.  I think he is kind and fair, civil and candid.  And pretty much right, even though he misses some important features of the book, features that I will explore because I think they are important.  So if you don't want to read my rambling roll of a several part review, at least read Galli. 

BELLIAN NEW CREATION HOPE
Two chapter titles in Love Wins are illustrative of how he frames the discussion of "the fate of every person" by this broad and comprehensive reading of the full-on hope of creation-wide restoration.  They are typically allusive--is Bellian a word?-- provocative and hip: "Here is the New There" and "Good News That Is Better Than That."  They illustrate the background and context of his ruminations on hell: God's heaven is coming on Earth (just like Jesus said) and in union with Christ we can begin to experience it here and now and this great news is much, much better than a mere assurance of escaping punishment in the hereafter.  Every knee is going to bow to Christ and will see this spectacular goodness, so you might as well get on the gospel train now. Etc. Etc.

He is serious about this and we should be to.

Just for instance, after a handful of Older Testament promises of goodness (which he extrapolates to include--as the texts sometimes say but may or may not mean---all people and their lands. Check out these punchy one-sentence paragraphs:

The prophet Ezekiel said that people will be given grain and fruit and crops and new hearts and new spirits (chap. 36)

The prophet Amos promised that everything will be repaired and restored and rebuilt and "new wine will drip from the mountains." (chap. 9)

Life in the age to come.
If This sounds like heaven on earth,
that's because it is.

Literally.
This is good stuff and important.  It is important because I believe it is true (and sadly underestimated in most churches) and important because without those views, we cannot adequately understand his expansive view of grace and the very title of the book.  Do note that the book is not firstly or primarily about hell.  He is all about the presence of God come to Earth in Jesus and in the Kingdom He is establishing here.

Once again, Bell is not the first to say this--it is not that uncommon, actually---and he has said it since his first book.  Here is an excerpt from 2005s Velvet Elvis (Zondervan) which could have been an excerpt from Love Wins

Let me take this further: If we only have a legal-transaction understanding of salvation in which we are forgiven of our sins so we can go to heaven, then salvation essentially becomes a ticket to somewhere else. In this understanding, eternity is something that kicks in when we die...

The Bible paints a much larger picture of salvation. It describes all of creation being restored. The author of Ephesians writes that all things will be brought together under Jesus. Salvation is the entire universe being brought back into harmony with its maker.
AN EVEN DEEPER CONTEXT
Alas, I think a lot of even deeper context may be helpful, and I will first say this: as we've already said, but it is vital to say again here, so you can follow the tale, Bell is not the first to wonder about the moral defensibility of God consigning people to conscious torture forever even if God's holiness is such that human rebellion is inexcusably traitorous. This has been pondered (as Bell explains, perhaps making a bit too much of it historically) from the earliest days of church history. In about the only line from the brilliant Mark Galli review that I found wanting, Galli says that only a "tiny minority" held this view.  What he means is only a tiny minority of theological writers who were deemed orthodox held to this view. I'd say a lot of people, people you and I know, actually do hold this view (and if you don't have friends who have told you that they believe something like this about not really believing in hellfire as typical understood then you either don't have friends who are being honest with you or you don't get out much.) 

 Of course, popularity doesn't make it true, but Bell is correct that he is not alone in suspecting--or at least hoping--that God's love and mercy outweighs God's anger at the unaware or unrepentant.

But there is something else going on here, something sometimes pretty deep below the surface, but it is something I think we can observe about Bell's overall work and mission.

It seems some of the more responsible debate about Love Wins and Bells views of hell being defeated by the redemptive intentions of God's love, are trying to wonder if it is orthodox to allow such an idea.  Can we say that all souls go to heaven?  Of course there is the huge question about the teaching of wrath and judgment, but let's focus just on this background piece for a moment.  It seems obvious that a lot of people take sides on this question--all souls go to heaven, yes or no, true or not?

But what if that isn't an especially Biblical way to ask the question?  What if Bell's contribution, intended directly or not, is to help us reframe the assumptions of the question, or at least part of the question.  Should we believe in disembodied souls and do people live forever the the Heaven where God and angels dwell?  And where or what is our final destination?  Let's back up a bit.  I'm positive it will help you understand Rob Bell better and not many have said it yet.

PLATO AND SOULS
We must explore---hang in there with me because this is important---a matter presupposed within this conversation that has been going on, what people (leaders, theologians, artists, or more ordinary folk) tend to assume and therefore believe about the afterlife, any why they believe what they do.  It is an important matter that Bell himself doesn't adequately address, but is surely in his mind.  We must explore the unhelpful influences of the pagan assumptions and weird views of Greek philosopher Plato, called Platonism (and, more precisely, the later, 3rd century revival and "Christianized" version of Plato that became known as neo-Platonism.) That unbiblical approach to the life of the so-called "eternal soul" influenced the intellectual categories of the early church.  And this has been bad, generally, and vexing as it influenced our thinking and talking about this topic.

BAD SYNTHESIS
It may be simple-minded to explain it this way, but just think of what one gets in chemistry when one creates a synthesis---something synthetic, artificial.  The pure thing is lost in the amalgam, now a composite, no longer the real deal.  So, the early church's synthesis, its tainted acceptance of these Platonic ideas was disastrous and plague us still.   Bell doesn't talk about this stuff, but I know that he knows it.  It is surely between the lines, part of his intellectual agenda. And I believe he is right--call it prophetic, even--on this score.

DUALISM'S LEGACY
Just consider the alleged gulfs, the great divides, renown in the early church and medieval world that have in various ways deformed the modern church and how we lean into our lives:  the (good) soul vs the (bad) body, the (perfect) calling to be a prayerful contemplative vs the (lesser) calling to do ordinary work, the ideal of the (pure) celibate life vs the disapproval of (dirty) sex and procreation, the (sanctifying) role of pain vs the (tempting) joys of pleasure, the glories of the (rationalistic) intellectual life vs the (despised) life of manuel labor, the value of the (private) inner life vs the less valuable (public) life of the commons, and, eventually, the commonplace perception of a battle that is lined up as faith vs reason, and reason vs creativity, and, as Nancy Pearcy's important work in Total Truth (Crossway) and Saving Leonardo (Broadman) helps us understand, knowing vs believing, fact vs value.  These unnecessary and deforming dualisms (and church leaders did and do teach every single one of them) play out today in the oddest ways.  Most enduring, perhaps, and most relevant for the debate about the afterlife, is the hard dualism of a focus on the (eternal) afterlife as opposed to the (temporal) things of Earth, rooted in the old Platonic heresy of a hard division between the so-called pure form of a soul locked inside a (bad) material body.  Of course, this is not a Biblical way of understanding adama (literally, Earthling), the human person made in God's image, but we hear it said yet today.  All the time.  

Add a little anti-matter gnosticism, some rationalistic scholasticism, some medieval Catholic mysticism---see Being Human: The Nature of Spiritual Experience by Ranald Macaulay and Jerram Barrs (IVP) for an excellent critique of how some of those enduring monastic writers perpetuate this hugely wrong and finally inhuman dichotomy---and throw in notions of the Divine Right of Kings and the idol of unrestrained scientific and industrial growth ("Knowledge is Power!") wedded to the nationalism that confuses God and country and we have the gigundus confusions of Christendom which we are yet to discern our way out of.   Interestingly, the Mennonites and Brethren have offered some help on this whole affair, but others mostly silenced them.  Early 20th century social gospel liberalism and early 21st postmodern emergent conversations have been valiant in trying to offer an alternative vision to this unbiblical mess, but have simply not offered enough Biblical truth to be valuable or sustainable.  I find great hope, even in Bell's contributions, but, better, in new books like A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story by Michael Goheen (BakerAcademic) showing the generative and fruitful way good Bible teaching can fund a missional vision for a missional church.  It is nearly monumental and will be a real blessing moving us in the right direction.

To try to again put it simply, a synthesis between Christian thinkers and the the dualism between the realms of the sacred and secular from  Plato gave rise to an ungodly ritualized church and a privatized personal faith, which facilitated a secularizing force (starting with the Renaissance and into the French Revolution and the British Enlightenment) to become prominent in Western culture, so we now have an often culturally irrelevant faith where the one thing people most religious people hope for---being immortal souls in an ethereal heaven---is itself an indication of our deeply unbiblical views.  The story of our lifetime is mostly shaped by the American Dream and our hope for the afterlife is shaped by a synthetic, lazy view that  just isn't the story of God.

A WHOLE AND HOLY WORLDVIEW?
The mid-1980s book, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview by Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton (IVP) is still the best overview of this less than positive take on the accommodation of seminal church thinkers with Greco-Roman ways of thinking and the subsequent capitulation to the Enlightenment roots of Western culture with its idols of technological and economic progress at all cost.  The first chapter of their must-read sequel, Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age (IVP) is a very succinct and prophetic bit of discernment about the ways modernity deformed our ability to live faithfully in God's being-redeemed world.  Although it can be a tad dry at times, Living at the Crossroads: An Introduction to Christian Worldview by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew (Baker) is jam-packed with vital insights about our era (and how we got here). this "crossroads" time of a shift from modernity to postmodernity, and invites us to "think Christianly" as we develop a worldview and way of life in this setting, in light of the full unfolding drama of Biblical redemption.  Again, Bell doesn't say it like this, but I believe if you can get this vision from these reliable scholars, it will put the debate about Love Wins in a bit of a different setting, and might be seen just a bit differently than the pretty predictable pro and  pro and con essays we've seen to date.
 

Now I do not know if Rob Bell has been influenced by these books.  The analysis which rejects the early church assumptions about the soul vs the body, spirit vs matter, church vs world, which were taken from Platonism and the subsequent adaptation of this sacred/secular dualism is important to really absorb if we are going to understand Bell's view of new creation and the nature of the renewed world to come.

Interestingly and importantly,  Bell properly critiqued this sacred/secular split in his first book, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith, and revisited the topic forcefully in Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality, and he explored it by way of a study of modern astrophysics in his long-form DVD, Everything Is Spiritual (all bravely published Zondervan.)  Not everyone who cries "No Dualisms!" and proclaims that Christ rules "Every Square Inch of Creation" or those who is attentive to the deforming ways pagan ideas have crept into our understandings and lifestyles agree with him on, least of all on his view of hell.  Still, he does cry (or at least whisper) "No Dualisms!" in almost everything he writes.  And that is essential to appreciate if we are going to understand him fairly.

SO THIS IS THE CONTEXT OUT OF WHICH...
This is the context out of which Bell comes, then, and (or so it seems to me) some of the concerns that seemed to have propelled him, some of the stuff he maybe learned when he was at Fuller, some of the questions he pondered (I'm guessing) when he worked with the ex-fundamentalist church planter Ed Dodson who was learning to disentangle himself from his former right-wing work with Jerry Falwell, now hanging around people in Grand Rapids with AIDS as well as folks from Calvin College with their beloved Kuyper quote about the Lordship of Christ over "every square inch" of the creation--it's on tee shirts in Western Michigan---starting up a hipster congregation with a serious, savvy and sassy concern for how the unchurched have been turned off by all of this bad religious stuff, this irrelevance and weirdness and ugliness and profound worldliness.  Early on he was rejecting dualism and rejecting Christendom and affirming creation, common grace, and a significantly Christ-centered view of the coming of the Kingdom of God.  Again, as early as 2006 he did a lecture tour (performing sometimes at rock clubs and other unusual venues) on the spirituality of science which was marketed in DVD as Everything Is Spiritual!

He was, without saying it, making a statement which was profoundly anti-Platonic dualism in his first Nooma, 001 Rain. You know the one, where he holds his baby while hiking in the storm. The point is important: God's creation is fallen and we must own up to our pain.  And God suffers with us.   God is not a distant deity and we are not called to be stoic.  Much later (012) he did one about a friend dying of cancer, Matthew.  God is present even in our pain, and important feature for Bell.

And in the next one, 002 Flame he again is deconstructing dualism.  Sex is a good, good thing, but can be abused.  Of course all manner of Christian folk might say it that way, but the power and passion and non-moralistic edge got to the heart of things, the way one might if one rejected the stupid dualism of Plato and the boys.  A pietist or dualist or liberal simply wouldn't have done a DVD like Flame.  His very Jewish-sounding "blessing" at the end--what one friend calls his "may you" sound like an invitation to good sex.  Some youth leaders wouldn't use it.

With a vision of creating an incarnational, creative place to invite people into a more wholistic and radical and truly Biblical story, Bell took up rethinking things, trying to disentangle what the (mostly Jewish) Biblical writers most likely really thought, not the ways their visions have been dogmatized by a tradition that we now know has been significantly influenced by unholy forces, like the neo-Platonism stuff and all that led to.  It should not be surprising that he hosts a degree of uncertainity in these, honors people doubts and fears and comes across as genuine, raw, even.  This is another example of the reject of static Greek thinking.  The last Nooma (0024) was called Whirlwind.  It's tag line?  "What do we do when there aren't nice, neat answers?"

003 Trees is my favorite of them all and speaks squarely and directly to the relationship between creation and new creation.  He literally plants a gree on a city street, conjuring images of the "trees whose leaves are for the healing of the nations" from Revelation 22.  Good trees in the garden, good trees in the new Earth.  We live, as he literally stands there, "between the trees." Brilliant.  No dualism, all of life redeemed, creation-being-restored kind of realism.

I don't know if he gets the customs of Second Temple-era Judaism precisely right, or names the right rabbinical texts, but 008 Dust is a tremendous Nooma, one of the most popular, and it is about how disciples of rabbis acted in first century Palestine, seeking to be accepted into a prestigious rabbinical school.  In an outrageously uncommon move, Jesus chose them, invited them into his movement, these unwashed fisherman.  Follow me, he says. And they stay close, allowing their character to be formed so they resemble Jesus as they apprentice with this odd rabbi.  It is about Biblical discipleship in response to calling and grace, living out our faith in action in the ways of the master, and not to be missed.

Do you know the 011Nooma called Rhythm?  Some thought it verged on pantheism, so taken as it is with God's nearness.  He points out that some think God is distant, somewhere else (pulling levers?)  But God is like a song (it is filmed as classical musicians rehearse in their orchestra) and can be heard and felt, around us anywhere we are.  Knowing God isn't the result of some separate religious activity but can be nurtured in all that we do.  God.  All that we do.  Bell is smashing the Western assumption of dualism and standing firmly in an authentic Biblical vision that God is huge and here and that creation speaks to us of the Creator.  He is not a Platonist or a stoic.

 Again I don't really know if as a younger man Bell ever read the devastating critique of Western culture's accommodation with Plato (and, later, through Aquinas, with Aristotle) by Francis Schaeffer, or the similar take on 20th century dualisms of the culture and counter-culture, rationalism and romanticism, such as The Dust of Death by Os Guinness or seminal works about these things like Leslie Newbigin's Foolishness to the Greeks, say.  But his passions and language and cultural discontent and desires to present an alternative telling and living of the gospel story makes a whole lot of sense in light of these important, broad cultural readings.

On this connect-the-dots to Plato theory which I realize I am now on the verge of driving into the ground, Love Wins doesn't say much, but it is clear that he is taking on those assumptions at a profound level, rejecting things like the very way in which some of the early church fathers, through these influential lenses of Plato, described things like an immortal soul which seems to have significantly influenced the anthropology (that is, the view of the human person) in the earliest centuries of early theology.  So we now have this debate about whether people's souls burn or don't burn forever in a literal hell when, to some extent at least, our most careful scholars admit that this simply is not how Jews or the first century Gentiles who followed Jesus would have thought about the afterlife.  I wish I could say this more clearly or concisely but I invite you to re-read that last sentence.  It is important.

DON'T READ THE BIBLE THROUGH PAGAN GREEK GLASSES
Notice, for instance, what Bell is getting at here, from his chapter called "Hell."  He is describing a few Biblical words and their best translations.  (DeYoung, by the way, takes exception to his word studies and I am not sure if Bell, or his editors at HarperOne are to be trusted.  But I suspect that he is not as bad as DeYoung says.)  Bell suggests that a few words about the judgement of the goats in Matthew 25 may be mistranslated or at least misconstrued.  He says we read "eternal punishment" presuming it means never going to end, but that may not be accurate.

He asserts that "...'forever' is not really a category the biblical writers used."  Say what?



I don't know if he is right, but he maintains that the closest the Hebrew writers come to a word for 'forever' is the word olam.   He gives a few Old Testament citations, noting that when it is talking about God it seems to mean what we mean (time with no beginning or end, eternal.)  But it is also used to mean a period of time.  Like in Jonah.

Olam, in this instance
turns out to be three days.



It's a versatile, pliable word,
in most occurrences referring to a particular period of time.

So when we read 'eternal punishment' it's important that we don't read categories and concepts into a phrase that aren't there.  Jesus isn't talking about forever as we think forever.  Jesus may be talking about something else, which has all sorts of implications for our understandings of what happens after we die, which we'll spend the next chapter sorting.

Hmm.  I told you this was interesting.  Even our views of time and eternity and what words mean need to be reconsidered in light of a consistently Biblical worldview and in light of the best literary, grammatical, and historical insights of Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic and such.  He may not be correct in this instance but some of those that say Bell is intent on ignoring verses he doesn't like may not be adequately aware of or seriously grappling with his basic project of  disentangling faith from its enculturation by Greco-Roman thought, Western dualism, modernist/rationalist assumptions, Victorian morality, civil religion and all the rest.  My hat is off to him for being so audacious, even if he over-reacts or moves towards views that I do not agree with.

N.T. WRIGHT: SURPRISED BY HOPE
It is no surprise that Bell recommends N.T. Wright's magisterial study entitled Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, The Resurrection and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne.)  It is one of the small handful of books he suggest for further study (along with, naturally, C.S. Lewis' Great Divorce.)  Surprised by Hope is a very well-documented and carefully-argued text also insists on a bodily resurrection (not the ethereal forms of Platonism, or the surreal otherworldliness of the Christian imagination under the influence of neo-Platonism or an equally unsound pietistic gnosticism.)  We have to reconsider the state and geography of everlasting life if God is renewing all things (Revelation 22), relieving the entire creation from the distortions and pains of sin (Romans 8:22) offering everlasting life in a healed (re)newed cosmos.

(And, yes, although Bell doesn't say it, the "all things new" promise of Revelation 21:5 uses the Greek word "renew" not "brand new" which is to say a renewal of the original good creation, not a utterly new place after the old one burns up. And it can be argued (as do the notes in my literalistic New American Standard Bible, that the fire "reveals" not destroys the elements of creation in 2 Peter 3:10.  But I digress.)

Tom Wright helps us rethink things in light of fully Biblical history and grammar and thinking and he does it as well as anyone. To date Surprised By Hope the most important book on this topic. (Although, as I have said before, I think Al Wolters' Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Eerdmans) and Randy Alcorn's Heaven (Tyndale) and Heaven Is a Place on Earth by Michael Witmer (Zondervan) are very helpful here and should be on your bookshelf. This is absolutely not to suggest these author's agree with Rob Bell or have directly influenced the research behind Love Wins.  But I think they are helpful, solid, and important resources to understand some of this discussion.)

DEEPER STILL: BEYOND HOMELESSNESS
For those inclined to go a bit deeper into the questions of what it means to live in this kind of counter-cultural Christian hope for a renewed creation, urban activist, campus minister and Ontario farmer Brian Walsh along with environmental science professor and activist Steven Bouma-Prediger have done an extraordinary, serious, fascinating study of how our sense of place and ecological stewardship has been eroded by the double-whammy combo of Platonic dualism that has oriented Christians toward the otherworldly afterlife and the secularized frantic ideologies of progress, growth, and upward mobility.  It is called Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement (Eerdmans) and when it came out I named it a book of the year.  They describe the eschaton as homecoming after exile and use their robust Biblical imaginations to ask about home-making, caring for the literal homeless, and creating a way of life that "practices resurrection" (as the Wendell Berry poem puts it) in the here and now, even in the face of the horrors of environmental crisis, massive poverty, and middle-class family breakdown.  If there is a connection between the old mad farmer Berry and the young mad pastor Bell, it can be found here, in the work of Walsh & Bouma-Prediger. 

Beyond Homelessness doesn't tackle the question of hell---and, again, I have no idea if Bell has read it although I betcha he has---but it offers the most expanded study of what it means to explore questions of "who's in and who's out," the meaning of hospitality, inclusion, judgmentalism, living graciously, the relationship of place and redemption, and so forth of any book I know.  There are fabulous Bible interludes between each chapter which begin to offer insights about the goodness of the redemptive ways of God with God's world. These are moving vignettes which remind me of Bell's take on things at time.  It offers a vision and framework (including a reminder that in the Bible hospitality and graciousness to outsiders is central, based on God's own character and the covenant duty of God's people to bless others.)  I truly think that Bell's impulse to be expansive in his hope for all to be saved can be understood better with Beyond Homelessness as an admittedly different, but somehow exceptionally relevant, conversation partner.  

If we want to be Biblical faithful we simply must get rid of our non-Jewish lenses that mis-color our understanding of pertinent Biblical texts. (In his small Paul for Everyone Commentary Series on 1 Corinthians (WKJ), N.T. Wright does this specifically with the admittedly complex teaching, made more troublesome by unhelpful translations that presupposed the immaterality of eternity, of 1 Corinthians 15, which is certainly a very germane study to this topic.)  We must sort out our cultural assumptions about things like heaven, hell, what fire is and does (refining? destroying? revealing?) and what we mean by the soul (immortal or otherwise) and interpret them, firstly, from within the world of the Bible itself.  We have to ask what the Bible says about insiders, outsiders, Jews and Gentiles, holy and unholy, exclusion and embrace.  We have to do the word studies and, more, immerse ourselves in the Biblical story until it sanctifies our very imaginations.

THE PAINTING
This is perhaps why Bell starts his book with an admission that a rather tacky painting of his youth weirded him out---it shows people walking across a suspended cross like a bridge from this earth to a shiny cloudy place, heaven, evacuated white robed people zooming away to this other (peculiar) place.  This sincere painting simply does not capture Christ's own teaching about the Kingdom coming on Earth, any sense of Paradise Lost but Regained, or the promise of a new earth and sky promised at the end of the book of Revelation.  

At least one conservative reviewer has derided Bell for finding this painting confusing, as if the point is that Bell doesn't care about Jesus, the cross, or heaven; such a serious theologian, though, should have applauded Bell for wanting our art and imaginations about the new creation to be as earthy as the Bible says it is--- to be, well, as Biblical as the Bible is.  Bell is quite right about this creation regained stuff, I am sure of it, and it is a part of Love Wins that isn't being discussed nearly enough.  And we won't really appreciate the debate about God's redemptive power to reconcile all things unless we are significantly rooted in the Biblical vision.

But we are ahead of ourselves.  It must be noted, then, that Bell's chapter on new creation is helpful and solid.  He may say things with a bit too much poetic passion so you may need to turn to, as I've said, foundational books by the likes of Wolters, Alcorn, or Witmer to get a more carefully developed explication of the nature of God's new creation coming "on Earth as it is in Heaven."  But Love Wins explores this energetically and pushes us in the right direction, evoking imaginative ways of seeing the goodness of God, God's covenantal faithfulness to the good creation, and how sin is being eradicated, in Christ.  Swords into plowshares, reconciliation between hostile ethnicities, rich and poor having their fortunes blessedly intertwined, justice and peace kissing in a fond embrace (to use the lovely imagery of Psalm 85:10 )---Bell takes these images seriously and he should not be faulted for not paying attention to the Bible. He is notably animated by these images and hopes and dreams.

Bell seems to read the New Testament verses in light of this grand sweep of the Hebrew hopes, and this is helpful, usually, and makes for interesting, fruitful interpretations.  Kevin DeYoung offers 10 very important examples where Bell gets his exegesis way wrong.  He makes a good case that Bell is worse than sloppy, but you and your Bible study group will have to look up the texts and decide for yourself.  In many ways he has this Hebrew vision and the Jewishness of Jesus deep in his bones; his worldview seems to breath this hope for restoration through Christ and it could offer a healthy corrective to cramped or misguided interpretations, informed by inadequate assumptions or trains of logic.  This is not to say he is correct about any and every detail (I think he is not--again, see  DeYoung's Gospel Coalition article that I've cited.)  But those who suggest he isn't adequately attuned to Scripture just aren't paying attention.

LOVE WINS REVIEWED PART TWO COMING NEXT
In my next post I'll spend more time exploring an important aspect of this essential background to most fully appreciate some of the framework I see behind Rob Bell's Love Wins.

It will include some complex thinking about the nature of the work of the cross.

LOVE WINS REVIEWED PART THREE COMING SOON
Then, in a final Part Three I'll list about ten random points to consider about the book.  I've got a tablet full, but will keep it succinct.


Thanks for your diligence and care.  I'm grateful for the chance to write my thoughts, for those who encouraged me to do this.  I hope it helps a bit.

Hearts & Minds  234 East Main Street  Dallastown, PA  17313     717.246.3333

March 19, 2011

Love Wins Review: A Long Part 2

In part 1 of this review I suggested that Rob Bell's controversial new book Love Wins
rob-bell-love-wins-book.jpg
can be understood as part of a larger project, Bell's disentanglement of Christian faith from the sacred-secular dualism inherited by by the church years ago that too easily bought into assumptions of the popular philosophers of the day, which is to say Plato, neo-Platonism, and, later, Aristotle, which set up an historical development that led to all kinds of bad stuff.   I know there are tons of details about how Bell views the cross, and God's holiness, and details of hell and human freedom and so many more truly important things, but I want to appreciate his work on its own biggest terms. 

And my input is that its own biggest terms includes how the legacy of  secular modernity, the ideologies of economic growth and faith in unrestrained science--can any one say nuclear reactor in Japan?  Or gas fracking in Pennsylvania?---and a host of contemporary confusions go back to the synthesis of the early church and Greco-Roman thought.  It is no wonder that too often good Christian folk haven't been involved in being agents of justice in the world---they thought that social involvement was "secular" or that scientific discourse was somehow a threat to true religion or that art was inappropriately fanciful.  This theological dichotomy between the work of "nature" and the separate, special "realm of grace" leads to a lived practice of thinking that God cares more about some stuff than other stuff---it is more religious to read the Bible than take out the garbage, or more spiritual to pray than to vote; it is not (oh how I wish it was) a cliche to say that some folks are (still) taught that it is better to be a missionary than a banker, say, better to go to a church Bible study than a professional seminar for your work.  This warped worldview is complicated, but very, very wrong and no serious Christian theologian believes it, although many don't seriously protest it.  (I have one friend who likes to say he is, admittedly, a "soft dualist.")  Having reviewed a couple Nooma DVDs I sure don't think Bell would want to concede that!

I suggested that important books like Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton's mid-80s classic The Transforming Vision (IVP) gave a rough and ready historical overview of how the Christian faith accommodated itself to Greco-Roman ways of thinking, opening the door (in Francis Schaeffer's important description) for  "nature to eat up grace" allowing for a privitized and compartmentalized faith where the public idols of the age given free range.  We see an increasing credence given to the power of human Reason and the inevitability of progress,  certainly from the from the Enlightenment on.  Some prophets on the right and the left have seen that as an affront to a holy God and a detriment to human culture, but few get worked up about it much, so we live out the dualism, passionate about Christ, fussy about theology, but yielding large parts of our lives to a sort of modern Babylonian captivity.

Which is to say, Sunday-only Christians who disregarded the real world of culture led to (bore the fruit of) serious secularization which allowed for idols of Babel-like technical power and unrestrained science, politics and Empire and all the rest.  Although a bit more careful and restrained, the under-appreciated little book by life-long missionary to India, Leslie Newbigin, called Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Eerdmans) gets at this same concern. 

I think this rejection of dualism's legacy is one of the great contributions that Bell brings in his books, his short form-Nooma videos and the longer-former lecture DVDs, like Everything is Spiritual. He's a preacher who has given serious thought about communication and staging and media, but he is not called mostly to be a scholar or sociologist, so he doesn't name all this stuff which I have said he implies. But he explodes the dualisms with his vibrant call to believe that God's hope leads us to live differently.  In a very real sense, he says that "love wins" because God's ways are like that, and they are true to the way the world works.  We don't see it fully, though, because, well, we just don't inhabit the world as Christians.  We go to church and do our spiritual practices or read our doctrinal blogs but we don't live in the world as Christians.  Rob is trying to help us see that. 

UNDERSTANDING THAT NEW CREATION IS A COUNTER NARRATIVE TO DUALISM
Unless one sees that Greco-Roman dualism, and the synthesis of the medieval church with the spirits of the age--how how times don't change!---has severely deformed the Christian faith, one will not appreciate Bell's gutsy and notably creational vision. He affirms life in this world as we should if we are Biblically faithful and we don't get enough of this from the critics (even the Reformed ones who ought to know better.)  He's about art and science and creation care and sexuality and death and life and the mundane things that give glory to God as we serve Christ in the quotidian.  From good and Godly common grace to the saving forgiveness of God in Christ, it is this world--not pie in the sky or a spacey heaven for ethereal souls---that Bell thinks God wants us to most care about.  This should not be read (at least in theory, I don't know about Bell's daily life, of course) as being disinterested in the awesome greatness of God or the hope to glorify Christ or advance His reputation.  Such things happen just as we live our lives, not by a lot of sanctimonious religiosity.  Christ rules "every square inch" of this world, as His Kingdom comes and heaven joins with earth, making all of life something akin to sacramental.  This new creation, paradise lost-but-being-regained eschatological vision where the future breaking into the here and now is the counter-narrative to dualism that posits dirt vs spirituality, earth vs heaven,  bodies vs souls, time vs eternity.

Bell rejects Plato's influence and seems to suggest that it is unhelpful to debate if disembodied souls live on in another dimension called heaven.  Rather, resurrected bodies glorify God forever by doing what God always wanted humans to do: with Christ, rule the Earth.  Forever.  Interestingly, Love Waits makes an observation that in the important final chapters of the final book of the Bible (and Bell notes that it may be a bit speculative because it is admittedly a small detail in this epic apocalyptic book) the doors of the New Jerusalem "do not shut."  Can there be second chances for folks to get in?  To live in the perfect new world God is bringing?  Some have mocked him for even asking, but I've seen odder things drawn from small details...

But my point is that this can hardly even be entertained as a question without the broader background that Bell is pushing us towards: all of life redeemed, heaven is coming into human history, love wins because God is reconciling everything.  Just like Colossians 1 says. 

HUBRIS?
So it is this framework, a new way of thinking about the end of the Bible story, that so shapes Bell's hunches about hell.  He does note in the book and in his interviews that we have to admit that all of this is speculation---we don't have many post-mortem witnesses to what is on the other side of death's door, let alone what will happen in the future.  So he is candid about that, in a way his critics ought to be too.  Some of the exceptional confidence of these critics just smells like hubris, or as one reasonable friend thinks, just silly.  Who knows for sure?  Not Rob Bell or Justin Taylor.

THIS FRAMEWORK CAN GET YOU KILLED
This background stuff is the real contribution he makes, and one of the values I see in all of his work.  Bell insists that heaven is coming to Earth---creation regained is one way of saying it, or new creation, or Kingdom come.  God is bringing renewal and life to the planet Christ died for, so our faith is oriented towards being agents of God's transformation rather than declaring that we agree with a certain dogma that assures us of salvation. 

We follow a Jewish Messiah, not merely agree with the proposition that he died for our sins, because He inaugurates heaven on Earth. It is no accident, many have observed, that Jesus' very first sermon identifies Himself as the Messiah and insists that He is bringing to reality the Year of Jubilee, with its stunning multi-faceted call to shalom and human flourishing.  Forgiveness of sins and forgiveness of debt, release for the poor and for the prisoner, healing for the land and for their systems of economy.  This is good news, indeed, and it is Jesus' first sermon!  Mennonite scholar John Howard Yoder was correct to link Leviticus 25 and Isaiah 62 and Luke 4 and call it "the politics of Jesus" (although I heard this first from some Orthodox Presbyterians, I think, showing us how to read the Bible in the "historical redemptive" style.  It got some of them, as conservative Calvinists, to protest oil pipelines messing up the Canadian environment in the mid 1970s, and it got pretty controversial, this Jubilee vision for creation care.  But I digress.) 

Of course the rest of the story is part of the Jubilee inauguration, too.  Jesus goes on to teach at the end of Luke 4 that non-Jews---outsiders and enemies---may be getting in on this, too, and when the good church-going folks who were so happy to hear his words of hope (for them) realized what he was saying, they turned on him.  They wanted to kill him!  I guess I'd say, Watch out Rob Bell---this generous vision of an inclusive Jubilee year of freedom for all creation which might include God's enemies could get you in bigger trouble than some bloggers calling you cranky names.

SOULS?
A  detail emerges from Bell's rejection of Platonism and embrace of a new creation ministry: the very notion of an eternal soul disembodied from humans made in the image of God is itself a troublesome construct, owing more to the body/soul dichotomy of Plato than any seriously Biblical vision.  He doesn't say any of this directly, mind you, and I am doing a bit of midrash mash-up, I guess.  

You know the word in the Bible for "soul" is the same word as "guts" or "bowels" or even "corpse" so while we certainly can talk about the deep center of a multi-faceted person made in God's own image, it is best translated  "heart" and we should not see ourselves as "having" a soul, as if there is some ghosty thing bouncing around inside somewhere between your ribcage and your kidneys (let alone in your frontal lobe, as some are saying.)  The Bible simply does not teach that.  

So God is not in the business of saving souls, but of forgiving and healing people who are invited into union with God in Christ--his righteousness imputed and God's image restored to us.  God does the saving work to rescue his planet, and us, and we are those who proclaim it, even to "all creation" as it says in Mark 16:15---ahh, St. Francis had it right, somehow, in talking to the animals, eh?  What would his critics think if Bell did a Nooma video on that

Perhaps the most serious and most significant book about the meaning of the imago dei, that allusive phrase about being made in the image of God, by the way, is by Richard Middleton (yes, the co-author of Transforming Vision and of Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be), The Liberating Image: The Image of God in Genesis 1 (Brazos.)  It is exceptionally scholarly but one of the richest works of Biblical studies I've ever waded through. And very germane to this topic, if in a somewhat behind-the-scenes way.  Wanna bet that Rob Bell has read it?  I am positive, if you are serious, you will understand this whole conversation better if you were to read it, even though it isn't simple to connect the dots between this properly Hebrew view of the person and Bell's speculations about heaven and hell.

EVERY BODY GETS IN BECAUSE OF GODS BROAD REDEMPTIVE PURPOSE
Bell's claim that all people get to get in on this great, gracious accomplishment of God's redemptive acts can best be understood in the context of this broad vision inspired by the claim that Christ is reconciling all things to Himself.  His revulsion of the notion of a vengeful God torturing people while happy souls float in heaven is not only a sense of God being more loving than that, but it is rooted in his understanding of the gospel news of God's work being bigger than that. 

This is controversial, but scholars and solid leaders like Eugene Peterson and Richard Mouw, as I've noted, but not sure I've agreed with, assure us that in their estimation, even if they disagree with some of his more flamboyant ideas, they think he is within the bounds of historic, Christian orthodoxy.  Still, it is pretty clear that even if Bell gives us a broader, more Biblically-driven reason for God's inclusive purposes (yes, he trots out the legitimately perplexing verse where Jesus says he has "sheep in other folds") Bell's hope that love wins over everybody is not based on any one proof text but dozens of verses that say "all things" "all creation" "all nations" "all people" all, all, all. This is no meager "oh God just has to be nice to people" or "come on, sin isn't that bad" but a full-on admission that there is hell on earth, evil, brokenness and great, great pain.  We are sinners and sinned against, things are foul and we hurt and creation groans and God weeps with us.  And intends to rescue us, all.

The point here is that it is this sweeping understanding of the full comprehensive impact of Christ's cosmic redemptive work that leads him to reject notions of irreversible, eternal damnation for most of humankind.

So.  I've insisted that knowing this background--rejecting dualism and embracing an Earthly Kingdom come--is the key to appreciate his newly framed discussion about heaven and hell.

Read this lovely interview with Bell by his friend, writer Cathleen Falsini and see if my thesis rings true to his own description of the book and how it came about. Is my midrash getting at something?  He doesn't say it the way I do, but I hear shades of my description between the lines. 

BRIAN McLAREN
Brian McLaren has been under the same sorts of attacks as Bell by those who find his views to be heretical and he has been called every name under the sun.  This is not the place for a full survey of Brian's theology, but he has been working on a theme that is quite germane to this conversation, and really unpacked it in his last book, A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions That Are Tranforming the Faith (HarperOne.) I have read all of his books and count him as a friend and I think it would be fruitful to compare his journey with that of Bell's.  McLaren has worked on the same important conviction that Bell speaks of in the very beginning of Love Wins, where he says that some who tell a bad or unfaithful version of the Christian story have "hijacked" it, taught it and confused many about essential things.  (Ahh, the ironies are thick here, since that is exactly what their critics say about them.)  Hang in there with me as I do a little more midrash, discerning some connections between the two authors/storytellers that might be helpful to consider.

I do not know if McLaren and Bell are friends, and Bell has not identified himself with the emergent village, the ooze, or other emergent conversations that Brian has been a midwife to.  They are not at the same theological place these days, but their concerns are similar and their analysis of Western culture and the church's accommodation overlap.



They both use the language of story, and telling a better sort of story about the gospel.   Bell and McLaren believe that the reduction of Christianity to a "fire insurance" policy to "evacuate us to someplace else" (even if that is called heaven and is given a happy or weighty reputation because God is there) is simply not what the Bible is about.  In different ways and with different nuances, all sorts of moderate evangelical scholars would agree;  this isn't that outlandish---consider N.T. Wright,  Leslie Newbigin,  Francis Schaeffer, Os Guinness, John Stott, Ronald Sider, Nicholas Wolterstorff,  Dallas Willard, Alister McGrath, Eugene Peterson, Tim Keller, James Houston, Scot McKnight, Tom and Christine Sine, Tony Campolo, Shane Claiborne, Chuck Colson, Andy Crouch, Phil Yancey, and nearly all the missional leaders writing these days.   Or recall the great thinkers from our past, from Augustine to Ignatius to Luther to Calvin to Wesley to Kuyper to Edwards to Bonhoeffer to Martin Luther King to Billy Graham or Rick Warren.  (Catholic and Orthodox thinkers have yet another nuanced take on this but are certainly close to this "new creation" Kingdom-on-Earth" eschatology that I've described and their influence on Bell is evident, too, I think.)  So the move to reclaim broader notions of discipleship and cultural engagement or "waiting around until the rapture" is reputable and good

Fire-insurance assurance so you can avoid hell when you die is not what Jesus' gospel was  and, again, all serious Bible scholars observe that whenever Jesus said "the gospel" in the synoptics, it was linked to that phrase, the Kingdom of God, which was at hand.  McLaren explicates all this nicely (with some provocative suggestions) in The Secret Jesus Message of Secret: Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything (Nelson.)  So far, I think they are on to something huge---Dutch heavy-weight scholar Hermann Ridderbos wrote a massive, tedious volume that influenced me years ago called The Coming of the Kingdom (P&R) and Wesleyan scholar and missionary Howard Snyder works with it very nicely in The Community of the King, a book that we still vigorously recommend.  Do you know Kingdom Come: How Jesus Wants to Change the World by Alan Wakabayashi (IVP)? Alan was a para-church evangelist for years when it dawned on him that Jesus was always talking about the Kingdom, it was near, within, close at hand, and his parables were often illustrations of what the Kingdom was like.  He realized he never told anybody about God's reign breaking into history and set out to do a study of the theme of the Kingdom and how it might influence his ordinary life and ministry and evangelism. 

I do not mean to say that McLaren and these authors are similar, or that Bell has been influenced by them directly; not at all.  I am making a collage, showing recent work being done on this vital theme that can be arranged together.  And that is a very big piece of the background in order to understand--really understand--Bell's popularity amongst younger evangelicals who are also learning about missional, Kingdom visions and Kingdom approaches to cultural reform and actually inviting people to accept Christ's cross and enter the Kingdom.

FOUR CHAPTER STORY
Many evangelicals are increasingly talking about the overarching and inter-connected Biblical themes, the chapters in the Story, as creation-fall-redemption-consumation/restoration.  That is, the gospel is not only about knowing God, making much of God, as if that will be what happens in eternity in a creation-less context, like in some beatific vision (as John Piper's The Gospel is God: Meditations on God's Love as the Gift of Himself (Crossway) seems to suggest.  Still, though, it is a very inspiring book, asking things like "would you want to be in heaven if Jesus were not there?" It's just out in a paperback edition and I intend to re-read it this Lent.)  Well--I'll say this to see if your following: thankfully, that isn't a question we have to worry about since we and Jesus will not be "in heaven."  Jesus is returning to Earth and God will dwell with us once again.  (Yes, it's that restored creation of the new city in Revelation 21 and 22, again.)  It is fair to say, I'd say, that I hope I'm "left behind" since the end of the Bible teaches that Jesus is on his way back, to establish His throne on a (renewed) Earth.

Further, this four-chapter version of the full gospel is not mostly about being forgiven of our sins, although we must be forgiven and justified through the death of Christ on the cross in order to enter the Kingdom and be able to know God.  The shape and flow of the story in the Bible--the narrative that God has given to us in the shape of the canon and the chronology of the history of redemption---includes more than the middle two chapters--fall and redemption, guilt and grace.  That is, the Bible is not just about sinners who need justified or guilt that needs removed.

As Bryan Chapell puts it in the new Gospel Coalition booklet What Is the Gospel (Crossway)

The Bible uses the term to refer to the message that God has fulfilled his promise to send a Savior to rescue broken people, restore creation's glory, and rule over all with compassion and justice....God's rescue, restoration, and rule apply to our spiritual condition but are not limited to spiritual realities.  Through Jesus Christ, our God delivers his people from the eternal consequences of human sin that have touched everything.  Our salvation includes us, but it's also bigger than we are.  

 The gospel is about a good world that has gone way wrong and how God's redemptive purpose is to call a people to Himself and send them forth to be agents of the news that He is going to redeem the planet at His own great initiative and cost.  It is not incidental that many people's favorite verse (John 3:16) speaks of cosmic salvation: for God so loves the cosmos, the whole created order, and yet most people see it as a verse about their own personal relationship with God.  Ahh, the old Platonic dualism---that God isn't really interested in the stuff of Earth and our faith is mostly private and personal and the cross is mostly about sinners getting saved---plagues us still.  It is exactly why I scolded Max Lucado (use the search feature at the blog if you want) for his study 3:16 which misses this entirely!  And it is why I am so pleased to be [soon] stocking the forthcoming art book Art That Tells a Story edited by Chris Brewer (Gospel Through Lived Experience) that uses contemporary artists and wise commentary by Michael Witmer to explore this four-chapter overview of the Bible.  What a wonderful coffee table gift book this is going to be!

 We are passionate about helping people understand the scope of the gospel, and it is clear to me that we must frame it the way the Bible does, starting with the creation, exploring the vast consequences of sin and dysfunction, celebrating the vast and costly work of redemption in Jesus killed and rise, and hoping with all our might---hungering and thirsting for--the full restoration of the planet with the gospel's promises are finally consummated.   Do you know any evangelistic tracts that say that?  Churches that preach that?  No wonder Bell is so controversial; most Christians simply don't even know what the gospel really is! 

McLaren, by the way, in his novel The Story We Find Ourselves In, offers maybe 8 "chapters" to the story, each starting with the letter C, as I recall.  Sean Gladding in his very, very creatively written Bible overview with lots of first-person, fictionalized conversations, The Story of God, the Story of Us: Getting Lost and Found in the Bible (IVP) also offers chapters that all start with C.  Creation, Chaos, Covenant...you know, Christ, Community... The connection between "this world and the next" as we sometimes say, is Biblically described as the relationship between creation, covenant, Christ and consummation. 

Rob Bell and McLaren expose as Biblically unfaithful this other narrative of evacuation, of souls getting saved, and the planet being burned as we fly to heaven. They are right to do so.  This does not underestimate the role of the cross, but heightens it.  Jesus is not a personal buddy of your little Platonic soul but the King of all creation, the Lord of Lords, the Risen Victor and Reigning King.  We must reject the "evacuation" version of salvation---"This world is not my home, I'm just a-passin' through" as the old spiritual puts it or "I'm only visiting this planet" as Larry Norman and DC Talk sung it or "the things of Earth will go strangely dim" as the old hymn re-popularized by the Passion worship leaders strangely puts it.  I am astonished when I ask "which parts of the Earth do you think Jesus wants you to see more dimly--the mountains, the poor, your marriage, your work?  What should we care less about once we ponder God's glory?" and people are shocked that I dare criticize the nonsense in that bad line. 

Bell seems to remind us to read the Bible on its own terms and not super-impose Platonic, Western or evangelical biases onto the narratives. As I understand it, this is a good part of the question about what some call "the new perspective on Paul" that attempts to read Romans, for instance, as a narrative, communal and written to Jews and Gentiles fuming in Rome, and not isolated texts about personal salvation, no matter how useful the "Romans Road" verses have been in personal evangelism. I do not know enough to affirm all of that, but the concern it raises is a good one. (In his new book Brian McLaren explains that he was shocked to realize he may have misunderstood this central book of the New Testament and re-read it, using it in his daily devotions, with a paper and pad, reconsidering it in light of Wright's important Romans commentary. He notes that it seems Romans is less a proclamation of the gospel as an answer to a problem caused by the gospel--how can Jews and Gentiles get along in the re-united Romans church after the Jews, who had been exiled from the city, came back a few decades later and wondered why the Gentile Christians had changed everything. Other commentaries miss that, reading it in light of certain medieval and reformation era legal understandings and ignoring the social context.  Fascinating!)



McLaren's recent New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions (HarperCollins) makes a larger case about the Bible being hijacked and I do not know if it has influenced Bell or not.  Brian, in a long footnote, cautions himself that he ought not to overstate or oversimplify this exciting new discovery, so he is aware that he may be making a bit too much of it.  But his larger case is not just that Greek dualism of a neo-Platonic source (where the body is bad and the soul lives on without it) has perverted a proper reading of the Bible, but also that Roman imperial views of conquest, violence, vengeance and retribution deformed our thinking.  Views of what is static, what creation was--perfect in the sense of Greek philosophy?--what the "fall" was, what is meant by redemption, the nature of eternity and and so forth are grounded in presuppositions that need themselves to be re-constructed, interpreting them in light of the Bible, not the other way around.

I need not explain his full case, but he shows how a Greco-Roman fascination about eternal perfection and violence (Mars was the god of that) really did allow many earliest believers to weirdly misconstrue much of the trajectory of the gospel story.  Jesus, as you know, was frustrated by his disciples latent violence (he calls them demonic for wishing fire on their enemies and rebukes Peter for that damnable sword wielding in Gethsemane.)  McLaren documents that this admixture of Greek dualism and Roman rationalism and imperial power shaped the theological imagination in late antiquity.  Although McLaren doesn't go into it much, Constantine's 4th century role in this is legendary (although contested; see the brilliant Defending Constantine: The Twilight of an Empire and the Dawn of Christendom by Peter Liethart (IVP) which helpfully explores the implications of the edict of Milan in 313.  It would take a less critical view than McLaren and Bell would, and offers a serious corrective to the currently favored critique.)

Anyway, McLaren does show how philosophies, hardened into what we now call ideologies, left their mark on the Fathers and the rise of the church, through the reformation and into today.   And part of that mark was their view of hell and judgment and the church's expansion in terribly brutal ways.  It is easier, we all must agree, to brutalize others when we suppose they are brutes, and it is easier to treat people meanly if we think God opposes them.  It can be carried too far, and their are gorgeous examples of self-sacrificing missionaries who died bringing hope to the lost, but we must admit that our views of hell have sometimes been used to justify great terror.

THE LAST WORD AND...
Actually, Brian was struggling with this earlier in the last decade when he wrote that trilogy of novels (each more interesting than the one before) about a pastor grappling with the intellectual shift to postmodernity.  The second, which introduced those "c" words, The Story We Find Ourselves In (Jossey Bass) was really how a narrative-based progressive revelation model of the unfolding story of the Bible makes sense of its difficulties, inconsistencies and hard issues. The third novel, called The Last Word (And the Word After That) was on this large question, the one Bell takes up in Love Wins: if God is indeed making all things (re)newed and has promised to mend the cosmos, and the Bible is the great news of how the love of Christ is at the center of this reclamation project, then what in the world do we do with the notion of hell?  Is everything made new except most people?  Does God heal the whole universe, except that dark spot where the unrepentant live in torment forever?  Is that consistent with the story (either the facts of the teaching about hell and the trajectory of the narrative arch?)

In this creative novel format the college age students of the newly postmodern pastor raise
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this question among their evangelical fellowship group. (This is not recommended, by the way, as it does not go well.) The facts about the history of the ideas of hell are explored and explained. It is a clever device, really, where the father and his young adult children have to figure out, or at least try to, why this seemingly inconsistent aspect of eternal anguish for millions seems so non-negotiable for so many; like in the response Brian got from the book, and like Bell is getting now, to even ask the question creates a lot of anxiety and controversy.  In the novel the characters set out to study the topic, reading studies from Mesopotamia, ideas about the afterlife from Persia, theories about how the early church got hoodwinked into accepting Zoroastrians' view of eternal fire (a case that is fairly informed and compelling, by the way.)  The novel, and the stuff the protagonists learn, is well footnoted and makes for intriguing reading.  That was in 2004.  Now, in his newest study, McLaren has added to this assessment that the early church learned some assumptions about spiteful violence for the conquered not from the suffering servant, the Lamb who was slain, but from Mars and his Roman disciples.

Let me say, again, that I am not sure if Bell has bought any of this, or if he has even read McLaren, the novel about hell or the new one that addresses it.  Bell certainly does not say it just the way McLaren does.  But they are following some parallel tracks.

ANOTHER PIECE OF THE PUZZLE: A SUBVERSIVE BIBLE
Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat wrote an extraordinarily important study called Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (IVP) about, among other things, how Greco-Roman presuppositions and ideological values are deconstructed by the Christ-centered, anti-imperial insights of the subversive Kingdom-of-God vision in the God-written, Pauline letter to the Colossians.  You may know that I endorsed it (alongside some serious scholars) and found it truly a ground-breaking work of Biblical study.  Colossians Remixed may not grapple with the questions of hell, but it exposes, though creative exegesis and solid insight about Old and New Testaments, how in this one example (contemporary Colossians commentaries and, by extension, much of the whole enterprise of evangelical Bible study) the radical anti-Imperial power of the text has been muted, how we've studied it using methods more modernist than Biblical, and how Christ's regime and God's Word through the text has been marginalized.

Consequently, in the academic literature on the texts (although it is slowly changing) as well as in our typical preaching, study, worship and devotional life, the Christian community has too often been co-opted by the powers of consumerism.  (Have you seen the fascinating and remarkable book on how we've even turned God into a consumer good, The Divine Commodity: Christian Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity by Skye Jethanie (Zondervan)? Rob Bell endorses very few books (for being such a popular author himself.)  He gives a nice blurb on this, and it makes perfect sense.  Bell is sociologically savvy, he gets this critique of consumerism as an ideology and worries about marketing.  (They are a mega-church after all but, despite what I said the other day, they do not have a light show.)

This stuff has been argued well by Walter Brueggemann in one of the top handful of books I've ever read, one I've tackled three times, The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress.)  Being in exile as a faithful counter-narrative to the dominant ways of life around us is common fare for Brueggy, and grounds it beautifully in his immense knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures.  The large portion of Bible teaching by Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton in Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be, influenced by themes from Brueggemann, predated and in some ways predicted Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire---and modeled radical ways to read Biblical texts in their socio-political context and allow them to tranform us into agents of God's work in the world, even against idols and injustice.

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The North American secularized consumerist way of life, coupled with ecological disregard and support for nationalism and militarism has consistently polluted a faithful understanding and discipleship and Colossians Remixed powerfully illustrates how the Bible, properly unleashed to shape our loyalties and lifestyles, can, as the subtitle says, subvert the empire.  I know that McLaren and Bell have been influenced by this and other similar new Biblical scholars (Chad Meyers who wrote a truly outstanding and game-changing Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus (Orbis) comes to mind.)  Many of them were influenced by older mentors like Walter Brueggemann and Jorgen Multmann and N.T. Wright.

I name Colossians Remixed not at all because it deals with the topic of hell and not because Walsh or Keesmaat agree with Bell (I don't know about that.)  I do know they have been guests at Mars Hill and--as with McLaren's novel about new ways to read the Bible, even--have helped many of us approach the Scriptures in powerful and fruitful ways.  Not unlike what the Beavers say about Aslan in Narnia---he is good but not safe---it might be interesting to seek ways to help unlock the Bible's transforming power in our midst.  Brian's chapters in the new book, New Kind of Christianity were he makes the case that Greco-Roman readings see the Bible as a "legal constitution" but his approach invites us to consider it more as a "community library" is laden with problems but surely an legitimate insight.

Again, my point in all this is to help you understand Bell's view of the Bible (and perhaps refute the goofballs on the internet who say he doesn't believe the Bible, blah, blah blah.)  I think reading the couple of chapters of McLaren's recent one, or enjoying his older novel, would give some illumination to the matter.   I do not know if Bell has worked out a coherent and faithful view of the Bible or what his practices really are as a preacher of the Word, week by week.  But he is on a journey.  These other authors are, too and they point us to stand under the narrative and hear its implications.  Even if they are provocative, subversive and, like Mrs. Beaver said, "not safe." 

2008 AND THE MOVE TO JUSTICE
In 2008 both Brian and Rob released important new books, both which were more politically engaged (and perhaps more rooted in Bible study, too) than anything they've done previously.  They were McLaren's Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises and a Revolution of Hope (Nelson) and Bell's Jesus Wants to Save Christians: A Manifesto for the Church in Exile (Zondervan.)  The McLaren book, interestingly, was given a brighter cover and a different subtitle when they released it in paperback (sales were disappointing.)  It now carries the subtitle When The World's Greatest Problems and Jesus' Good News Collide

Both books move from this Kingdom-coming, creation-restoring, generously orthodox view of living out discipleship in artful, upbeat "heaven on Earth" ways to this fairly serious socio-cultural criticism, breaking with the idols of the age, and reading serious social critics, from Jacques Ellul to Bob Goudzewaard to Wendell Berry. They rejected privatized faith and otherworldly piety (Greek-influenced) along with their rejection of simplistic doctrinal systematic thinking (Enlightenment-based) towards a more postmodern and evocative and narrative approach, a way of living into faith that is less driven by certitude than trust, more drawn to the person of Jesus than propositions about Him. And they linked that to God's liberating work in the world, especially in light of climate change, health crisis, war and global poverty.

Interestingly, McLaren wrote that he was less interested in being seen as emergent or postmodern and seemed now to be post-colonial. Brian says that about himself in an important essay in the rousing Emergent Manifesto of Hope edited by Doug Pagitt & Tony Jones (Zondervan.)

There is no doubt that Don Golden of World Relief has been an influence on Bell; in the
jesus-wants-to-save-christians.jpg acknowledgments in Love Wins he tells people to call him up and talk about stuff like micro-financing and measurable development goals in the third world.  You can see a bit about his excellent work at World Relief,  here.  Golden co-wrote Jesus Wants to Save Christians which is, I think, the most Bible-centered of Bell's work. Even there, though, there are shades of a new kind of universalism. In contrast to what he suggests are the ways of the old covenant he says that in Christ we now have this new experience of God's love.  "No more fear.  No more terror. No more thunder."   

Both McLaren and Bell both began to talk a lot more about social justice, preaching from the prophets and reading global theologians, and paying attention to issues like the debt crisis and AIDS/HIV and the marginalization of the GLBT community. That they both spent time in Africa and had their good hearts rent by the sorrows there at the start of the century surely must have shaped their theological and pastoral work.  This is understandable and good; theology must be contextualized and if they are hearing the cries of the world, the earth, the poor, the disaffected, and doing Biblical interpretation in ways that makes sense in these situations, they are to be applauded. 

BY THEIR FRUITS REVISITED
In the first part of my review in the last post I cited Jesus' line "by their fruits you shall know them" and it bears saying again at this point; Mars Hill has become known as a place that is involved in justice advocacy on many fronts. Bell is passionate about the issues in Africa, the campaign to stop the inhumanity of sexual trafficking, the effort to get clean water to those who need it.  In more than one place he talks about his trip to Rwanda and seeing the horrors there.  Brian, too, has increasingly been writing for Sojo blog and is seeking to make a contribution to the common good in the public square.  (And he continues to volunteer caring for turtles, a favorite pastime of his.)

Are they going off the rails a bit, unmooring their ways of describing their work in the Kingdom in a manner that is no longer essentially related to the historic, orthodox faith?  Have they stayed theologically impeccable in these things---like, say, Ron Sider or Gary Haugen or Lynne Hybells---or have their awareness of the troubles of traditionally understood faith lead them to renounce too much of solid standard theology?  I don't know but many thoughtful critics fear they have gone too far, generally.  And certainly in both of their newest books we have reasons to think that.

PRACTICE THE PRESENCE OF GOD
I believe that it is good that these leaders have pushed us to reject simplistic evangelical answers that may not be able to be sustained in the face of the anguishes of our times. Bell and McLaren, despite theologically concerns that I have with both of them, have deepened the ways they understood the reign of God over all things, and increasingly promoted ancient spiritual practices (indeed, Brian has written two books about spirituality, Finding Our Way Again, the first in that lovely and diverse "Ancient Practices" series (published by Nelson) and the brand new Naked Spirituality: A Life With God in 12 Simple Words (HarperOne.)

It seems that McLaren is more articulate and interested in ancient spiritual practices while Rob seems to be less so---he's all about connecting with the energy of God 24/7, not unlike the spiritual classic, Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. The 019 Nooma DVD, Open, is exactly about this, realizing prayer is more than just asking God for things.  (Indeed, an early Nooma, 005 Noise, is about silence, which was followed up by Nooma
006, Kickball, which was a excellent teaching on unanswered pray, clear and solid as can be.) 

This recent interest in the mystical path combined with the task of social engagement is not at all a contradiction: bringing together prayer and politics, so to speak, is wise and helpful and essential for long-term social engagement, as our best faith-based activists have learned.  That Bell has been in a rock band, loves music and artistic culture, and has drawn many cultural creatives and bohemians to Mars Hill is not incidental, either; he properly realizes that the arts can play a large role in people's spiritual lives.  In fact, even in his first book (Velvet Elvis, a call to return to the origins of an authentic and dangerous Jesus) he has a whole chapter rejecting the [Platonic] dichotomy between the so-called sacred and secular.  

The relationship between the "journey inward and the journey outward" and an attentiveness to the ways God can be experienced in ordinary life has been described many ways and some of the interesting and nourishing writers--Thomas Merton, say, or Richard Rohr, Howard Thurman, Tilden Edwards, Parker Palmer--- are not particularly evangelical or theologically clear-headed.  Some of the best contemplatives writing today, though, are clearly rooted in the evangelical tradition. Richard Foster comes to mind as a shining example here, of course, as done Ruth Haley Barton, Richard Benner, Gary Thomas, Lynn Baab, Eugene Peterson, John Ortberg and Dallas Willard.  I name these authors not necessarily because they show up at Mars Hill or are notable influences upon Rob Bell (in fact, Bell in Love Wins recommends only the recent mystical books of popular Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr (Everything Belongs and The Naked Now which I enjoyed but found perplexingly non-Christological, especially the second.) This whole field, though, illustrates a robust tradition of lived spirituality that Bell seems to tracking with.  

THERE ARE ROCKS EVERYWHERE
Some of his recent remarks sound a bit like the lovely An Altar in The World: The Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperOne.)  The chapter in Love Wins where he talks about Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 saying that Jesus was the rock from which water flowed in Exodus (you recall, when Moses whacked it with a staff) is a creative exploration of how, if Christ shows up in rocks, he can show up anywhere. The chapter is called "There Are Rocks Everywhere" and I loved most of it.  The exegesis is fine and the logic impeccable.

However.  I fear he verges on pantheism when he overstates things near the end of that otherwise fascinating chapter.  I will cut him some slack here since he is using words to describe the ineffable and because the Bible itself sometimes takes some weird liberties (like the one he mentions, calling Jesus the rock from that desert in Exodus 17) such as the extraordinary statement that trees clap their hands or that God's character can be known through nature (Romans 1) or the appropriation of pagan poetry ("in him we move and have our being") to say something true about Yahweh even though it was written about a false deity. 

God shows up in all sorts of ways in the Bible---including a story in Numbers about a talking ass owned by guy named Balaam, which I take to be true and the Earth is said to be charged with the glory of God---but the charge of pantheism still does worry me.  Get a grip on this, Rob. It has been hinted at in each of your books and we don't want you dropping off that edge---there has decidedly not been a conversation in the wide stream of orthodoxy about that.  Get God that wrong--confused with the creation--and everything will head south.  Besides, vapid, new age advocates are big right now (like that guy Oprah loves) and I think it would be wiser to be clearer.

In all of this, their understanding of the Bible, their subversive politics, their social justice agenda, their prayerfully sacramental view of spirituality in God's creation, I think Bell & McLaren have been sometimes misunderstood and the typical evangelical reaction has been to resist these insights, sometimes in a mighty reactionary way.  Circle those wagons!  Denounce the heretics!   Now I think that each of these topics and the new ideas these two authors promote are laden with some perplexities and neither author has been as theologically traditional in their approach as I might wish.  But despite slippery slopes and a penchant (in Rob's case, especially, for equivocation and poetic license) I still think they are well worth reading and helpful to the whole people of God.  I get the concern.  I don't get the resistance. 

They've not been studied carefully enough on their own terms and few have understood the stuff about the importance of creation and the way Augustine and Aquinas (for instance) allowed Plato and Aristotle to shape their views and writings, and how the Bible is not merely a set of propositional truths but is, as one great intro to the Bible puts it, the true story of the whole world.  Why haven't those consider with gospel purity complimented them on this?  Are those most aligned with conservative theology also aligned with conservative culture and the latter blinds them to the questions?  Are some of those fighting about exegetical details so out of touch with the hurts of the aching world that they can't realize the voices of pain that guys like Bell and McLaren represent, the disillusion and wounded and frustrated?  I wonder sometimes, although we may not make rash accusations either way...

McLaren calls for new paradigms (a pretty needed thing, in my book) although some careful readers have suggested that his "new" answers are a lot like the older liberal theologians of the 19th century.  That didn't work out so well, as we all know... still, it is my strong conviction that reading McLaren or Bell as if it is the same old liberal vs conservative, traditionalist vs progressive, evangelical vs mainline debates is not as helpful, insightful, or honest as the conversation should be.  I've explained why Bell ought to be considered within this larger context of his (proper) shift to a "all of life redeemed" kind of wholistic spirituality, a position that is Biblically-wise and generally a more truthful approach than the dualism and scholasticism of the critics.  Which is to say, they are rejecting stuff that needs to be rejected, offering new dreams in place of some that, frankly, were not authentically Biblical enough in the first place.  They are not simply 19th century social gospel liberals and it is a mischaracterization, I believe, to say that.  And, maybe, some of the insight of the 19th century social gospel liberals should be considered as part of what could be learned... (do I hear an Amen from my mainline liberal friends?  If  you're still with me?)

CRITIQUE BUT LISTEN.
Still, yet once again, the call to pay attention to them generously and to appreciate their efforts does not mean that they are correct, either in their assessments or their new directions.  Being dissatisfied with the past or seeing some legitimate weaknesses in the faith does not give you warrant to conjure up crazy new ideas, or recycle bankrupt old ones.  Here is one very useful conversation partner with Brian, one who has been very critical of his last book, who fears he is doing just that. It is from Scot McKnight.  See his serious critique here.)

On one hand, I wish they Rob and Brian were a bit more eager to name their journey as essentially one of evangelical fidelity; that is my wish, but they may feel less confident about the usefulness of that word or the tradition it represents. Bell does call himself an evangelical, although he may stretch the definition a bit,  and certainly insists his views represent a legitimate position within the wide stream of Christian.

Either way, as a brief interview with Eugene Peterson (who says the book doesn't compromise an inch on orthodoxy) puts it, "Rob Bell and anyone else who is baptized is my brother or my sister.  We have different ways of looking at things, but we are all a part of the kingdom of God."  He continued, "I don't agree with everything Rob Bell says.  But I think they are worth saying.  I think he puts a voice into the whole evangelical world which, if people will listen to it, will put you on your guard against judging people to quickly, making rapid dogmatic judgments on people."  And, he reminds us---the point, I suppose, of my long excursions---that we need to reexamine our doctrines of hell and damnation.  Peterson says, "Yes, I guess I do think they ought to reexamine.  They ought to be a good bit more Biblical, not taking things out of context."  

Or, Bell and McLaren might say, misinterpret the texts because we have Greco-Roman bifocals on that have badly colored our understanding in ways that are more from Plato or Caesar, Zeus or Mars than from our first century Jewish rabbi who claimed to be the long-awaited Jewish Messiah.

I'M WITH THEM IN MUCH
Much of this is is my own nearly four-decade learning curve since I saw the very first issues of The Post American (the edgier and more provocative underground paper that became Sojourners) that showed me that I was not alone in my Jesus-Freak anti-war efforts.  In the mid-70s I read Francis Schaeffer and later, a bit of Herman Dooyeweerd, the Dutch philosopher who exposed intellectual synthesis with the Greeks as the Achilles Heel of the roots of Western culture and the lynchpin of reformational renewal.  (That is, if we don't get at the alleged autonomy of Western thought and invite folks to a robust understanding of the Lordship of Christ--even in our thinking---then we will fail and God will not be honored and our culture will spiral downward.)   My own journey as a reader has been diverse, and I really enjoy and learn from all kinds of authors, as I am sure you do.

My old hero Philip Berrigan wrote one of the most moving prison memoirs I have seen, although his poetic brother Daniel gave me a new view of the book of Revelation.  Beth had been reading Jacques Ellul and we both were inspired by the old anti-racist Baptist preacher, Clarance Jordon.  So I was naturally drawn to scholar, sociologist and anti-war political candidate, Tony Campolo as he combined the intellectual tools of Francis Schaeffer and the social justice rhetoric of Jim Wallis.  Ron Sider, a solid evangelical if ever there was one, has had a huge influence.  (Did you see his recent open letters to young evangelicals on the need to do evangelism alongside their passion for justice, and the need to hold to traditional sexual ethics?)  And these are just a few of my favorite, varied authors... 

I loved the Christian art world, too, Hans Rookmaaker and Luci Shaw and Madeline L'Engle, the ways with words of Frederick Buechner, books on worldview and writing like How To Read Slowly by James Sire. And life stories, memoirs and fiction, too.

 We have had an environmental science section in our bookstore since we first opened and happily there are now evangelical publishers doing some green stuff.  We love the "nature writers" like Annie Dillard or Terry Tempest Williams or Brenda Peterson.  And Wendell Berry, since the day we opened.

 You see, this rejection of dualism and this wide-as-life view of redemption--we can build an "altar in the world" as Barbara Brown Taylor's book says---really has set us up to both care about good theology but to realize that theological formulation is only one (small?) aspect of God's world and Christian discipleship.  That is, I think we can develop our doctrine from reading Piper and Bell, but it also comes from Makoto Fujimura's paintings, and his writings about his paintings, or from Flannery O'Connor's novels or from Martin Luther King's first memoir, Stride Toward Freedom.  Scholars who want to parse the theological texts are right to do so, but let us realize that in this whole-life discipleship kind of vision, our worldviews and walk of faith are not essentially doctrinal.  We walk by faith, not by dogma.  We live into the reign of God in all we do, and that includes, but is not characterized by, theological precision.

 This worldview shapes some of what is behind our book selection and tendencies here at the bookstore; it is no accident that we are known for books on the arts, science, business, politics and media studies, race relations and sports and technology studies; we care about the vocation of the laity in the world because we've come to reject this Greco-Roman worldview that leads to compartmentalized faith and a merely churchy faith. We are not serious philosophers here, but do want to promote this radical social critique based on a wholistic view of Biblical discipleship, aware of the deforming influences of faith that has been accommodated with the Greco-Roman and Enlightenment presuppositions.  I am not saying that this is exactly what Rob or Brian are about, far from it.  But I see in my own deepest convictions and callings a similar set of concerns, and I see their insights as valuable and a blessing to the world in may ways. 

This is not uncommon, really, to realize that there has been inappropriate worldly influences upon church history and it is important to try to think this through and ride ourselves of these notions that are foreign to the Biblical setting itself.  Interestingly, this is a large part of the fantastic book by Soong-Chan Rah, The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity. (IVP)  I implored college students at a large conference last month to buy Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World By Being Different by Tullian Tchividjian (Multnomah) because it warns us not to take commonly accepted contemporary cultural assumptions to heart: the gospel calls us to be "non-conformed to the ways of this world."  Whether we hear McLaren critique our acquiescence to the gods of Mars or Bell critique our sacred-secular dualisms or hear remind us that relevance and being cool is not where it's at, we are prodded to think hard about the textures of fidelity.

Thanks be to God that Bell and McLaren have helped us search for a more pure faith, disentangled from Western philosophy, militarism, and civil religious ideologies.  And praise the Triune God for the way pastors like Bell remind us that "everything is spiritual" and that we can find God any and everywhere.  The Earth is, indeed, the Lord's and the fullness there of!   It is that way as created and made by Jesus (Bell is absolutely unequivocally clear that Jesus is God, the Word, as stated in John 1, for instance) and because Jesus is bringing heaven to Earth through His Spirit and people.  As Bell himself puts it,

Jesus teaches us to pursue the life of heaven now and also then, anticipating the day when earth and heaven are one.

Honest business,
redemptive art,
honorable law,
sustainable living,
medicine,
education,
making a home,
tending a garden--
they're all sacred tasks to be done in partnership with
God now, because they will go on in the age to come.
In heaven,
on earth.

This is, then, essential background for understanding Bell's interest in the big picture of God's healing work for the planet.  Love Wins is as much about heaven, and heaven on Earth, and how the cross leads to victory over injustice, and the ways Christ shows up in unexpected ways and places as it explores the questions of hell.  Pondering how Bell may have gotten to this broader picture---from Brueggemann and Moltmann, and Wright and Walsh and maybe Brian McLaren---and then to this specific question, could help us understand the context of Love Wins.  

HELL & THE NONVIOLENT ATONEMENT
I do not know if Bell has been involved in what is called the search for a nonviolent atonement theory, but that is another movement of those who are attempting to see the cross in ways that are consistent with the nonviolent ethic taught by Jesus.  Mostly Anabaptist and pacifist, they are often linked to the theories of theological psychologist Rene Girard.

Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You've Been Taught About God's Wrath and Judgement by Sharon Baker (WJK) is a recently released book which Brian McLaren endorses, alongside some other rave reviews (Crystal Downing calls her insight "brilliant" and Debbie Blue of House of Mercy says it is "lively, immensely readable, reasonable yet revolutionary" for those troubled by traditional view of hell.)  I found it really fascinating and instructive, if at times glib and quite troubling with a few pretty shallow arguments. As with everyone else in this movement, it seems, there is scant attention given to the holiness of God, the notion that God's utterly holy character forbids any complicity with rebellion.  Now is not the place to take that up, but certainly a book length treatment should have.

This book comes down as clearly as one can suggesting that there are other plausible interpretations of wrath and hell; in a sense, this is the book against traditional views of hell that people think Bell wrote.  He has a broader agenda, uses his poetic style, and is, honestly, a bit contradictory at times, apparently happy to live with paradox and tension and unresolved questions.  Dr. Baker offers a much more comprehensive and bold rethinking. If people were mad at Bell, they are going to go ballistic about this, and yet, she covers the issues painstakingly, bit by bit.  She is a theology teacher and her fairly traditional evangelical students are intrigued by this notion and she uses their questions and struggles as a way into the work.  It makes for a very realistic read (even if sometimes I think the students pitched her some pretty soft-ball questions, allowing her to convince them of new interpretations pretty easily, without grappling with the major objections to each argument as she would have if she were going toe-to-toe with serious scholars.) 

Importantly, she links the project of dismissing typical views of eternal wrath to the effort to refine typical ways of viewing the cross and ways of articulating the atonement.   Like Bell, she sees as a possibility that God is acting viciously, in painfully burning people alive forever,  in ways that are not consistent with other things we are told about God's pure character.

She explains that this alternative understanding of the efficacy of the death of Christ is related to her belief that the idea of hell, as typically understood, is inconsistent with a redemptive, loving God and the way some seem to describe substitutionary atonement sounds as if it could imply the Father's unholy spite.  It is not picky of critics to ask of her (and Bell) how views of wrath, views of eternal punishment, views of hell and views of the work of the cross may be related--does Christ pay a penalty, avert wrath, serve as a substitute, shed his blood to pay for our sin?  And, again, how does the holiness of God figure in; there is hardly any mention of this major aspect of God's self-revelation in Love Wins (which is a remarkable weakness.)  I suppose I am not saying anything surprising to note that one's views of judgment and wrath and hell are intertwined with one's understanding of the work of Christ on the cross and the meaning and means of justification. 

Baker, McLaren, and it seems Rob Bell do share an antipathy for notions of hell and also de-emphasize penal and substitutionary understandings of justification, leaning, perhaps, towards what is called the "nonviolent atonement" or at least Christus Victor view.  There is not much of this in Love Wins, but it could be surmised.

In Kevin DeYoung's analysis of Love Wins at the Gospel Coalition, which I cited in the last post as essential reading, DeYoung expresses his concern that Bell is avoiding the notions of penal substitution, and recoils at how Bell characterizes how some might see the cross as vicious, an angry father killing a son because somebody has to pay.  Some think that voicing this kind of concern nears blasphemy.

I do not think so; it is a question most sensitive souls ask, and that many who are newly studying atonement theory are troubled by.  It surprises me a bit that DeYoung and others in his strict Calvinist movement seem tone-deaf to the moral quandary this is for many.  It is not horrible to wonder about the character of a God who would permit conscious torture of unrepentant sinners, who expects us to inhabit a new creation knowing (if it is so) that others are in severe anguish, forever.  There are lines from some otherwise wise leaders in church history, and at least one sad phrase from hymn-writer Isaac Watts, who suggest we will enjoy the everlasting cries of the torment as part of the blessings of heaven.

So, to avoid such dilemmas, some think that we must not only alter our views of hell but we must rethink our views of the cross.  This is not the place to examine the different positions, but it is another part of what is in the air as folks talk about Bell's book.   

To ask about how best to explain all this admits and realizes that Jesus and Paul themselves used different ways to tell the story and our redemption. For instance, the Prodigal Son story has no cross, no payment for sins, only a runaway who comes to his senses with remorse, and a religious brother who did not. This does not mean we must eliminate traditional views of the cross, but it is not wrong to ask.  Bell is right when he routinely says that God can take our questions. He is a provocateur and relishes asking the hard questions, but it is my sense that these are questions he knows others are asking.  He should not be faulted for wanting to examine whether such a heavy thing---the notion that Jesus' death saves us from God---is a true truth and a faithful way of understanding and describing the Paschal mystery.

One very important scholarly collection to explore these notions is Stricken by God? Nonviolent Identification and the Victory of Christ edited by Brad Jersek and Michael Hardin (Eerdmans.)  It is a premier anthology with provocative and important essays by all sorts of mainline theologians, from Mennonites to Orthodox thinkers.  Well known names are included---from Rowan Williams to Miroslov Volf to N.T Wright.  Sharon Baker is here and so is the leaders of the nonviolent atonement school, J. Denny Weaver.  There is an excellent peice by Robert Eckblad on Isaiah 53  And don't miss the excellent overview piece editor Michael Hardin, a Jesus scholar and peacemaker who specializes in these things.

For one very serious study of the nonviolent atonement theory by one of its key advocates, see J. Denny Weaver's major work, The Non-Violent Atonement, now out in an updated second edition (Eerdmans.) It is pretty academic, but important; I suspect it will include some stuff you haven't considered before. 

For an engaged but critical discussion of it see the very helpful and gracious study Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross: Reappropriating the Atonement Tradition by Hans Boersma (BakerAcademic.) I have recommended that in these pages, before.  Peter Schmiechen, a UCC scholar from central Pennsylvania, former President of Lancaster Theological Seminary, put together a rather progressive take on all of this, a rich work called Saving Power: Theories of Atonement and Forms of the Church (Eerdmans.)  Saved From Sacrifice: A Theology of the Cross by S. Mark Heim (Eerdmans) is not exactly using the "nonviolent atonement" approach but is, as you can tell from the title, a major, and serious, reformulation. Given that Bell uses Hebrews to show that Jesus has done away with the sacrificial necessity, there might be some resonance.

The Nature of Atonement: Four Views edited by James Bielby and Paul Eddy (IVP Academic) is a fine resource to explore more of the various approaches in a helpful "panel discussion" format. Here, four reliable, readable, and very Biblical theologians reply to one another in a point-counterpoint collection. This is the kind of life-long learning we should be doing if we are eager to reflect on the deepest things our faith must grapple with.  If Bell's quick book pushes us towards these questions, I suspect it will be well worth it.

THE ANSWER IS YES!
Please, though, understand this.  I want to be clear. When Rob Bell, in Love Wins, names a variety of different theologies of the cross---penal substitution, relational reconciliation, debt forgiveness, familial adoption, victory over the forces of evil, the end of sacrifices---he asks, in punchy, almost sarcastic fashion (is he expressing frustration to those who would judge him? Expressing the frustration he hears from sharp, young readers encountering the vast array of ways the Bible talks about this?) Which is it?  This verse says it is a sacrifice.  This verse says it is to pay a debt. That verse says it gets us reconciled and brought near.  This one says it is for those who call on Christ but that verse says it is for "all."  Some texts tell us died for some, some texts clearly say he died for all.  Which one is the right one?  And what was going on at the cross--sacrifice, reconciliation, a legal transaction, an economic transaction, an act of war against sin or an act of love for sinners?  Come on, he wants to know, which version is the right one?

His answer is poetic and good.  He writes (on page 129),

Which perspective is the right one? Which metaphor is correct?  Which explanation is true? The answer, of course, is yes!
That is, yes to them all, as in "all the above."  Bell leans into one more than others, but didn't Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul and James each have their own favorite metaphors and ways to tell the story, each with a bias or tendency?  And there are a variety of explanations---he just cites a few, but names Hebrews 9, Colossians 1, Romans 3,  2 Timothy 1, John 5, and Ephesians 1

Bell says yes to them all, so he isn't nearly as guilty of confusion on this as his critics claim.  I think some of the critics have verged on dishonesty at this point because they seem unable to imagine that he agrees with all, or that he means what he says, as nuanced as it may be.  One prominent critic said something to the effect that "I can't even imagine a God like that" or something similar, as if the fault was in Bell, not in the critics feeble imagination.

I think it is irresponsible, for instance, when a popular leader says Bell "demeans the cross."
proclaiming-scandal-cross-contemporary-images-atonement-mark-d-baker-paperback-cover-art.jpg
  Bell, in his brief list of books for further study (he only lists 7, one for each of 7 topics) recommends  Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement a moving work edited by Mark Baker (Baker) which is a great collection of pieces by a wide variety of thoughtful evangelicals, theologians, spiritual writers, pastors and poets.  You will find here contributions by Richard Hays, C.S. Lewis, Frederica Mathewes-Green, Brian McLaren, Luci Shaw, Rowan Williams, Curtis Chang and others.  As you should realize, this is a pretty traditional gang (Mathewes-Green is a wonderful writer, a conservative Orthodox thinker; Hays is at Duke, Luci Shaw an outspoken poet and thoughtful writer within the evangelical world. I think it is marvelous, diverse, moving, Biblically-based and wise.  If Bell names one book on the cross and it is that one, this speaks volumes about his desire to continue to honor and stand in a creative, moderate, thoughtful, culturally-engaged, but clearly orthodox view of an evangelical faith.

Shame on those who have misrepresented Bell's view, which I quote, here:

The point, then, isn't to narrow it to one particular metaphor, image, explanation, or mechanism.  To elevate one over the others, to insist that there's a "correct" or "right" one, is to miss the brilliant, creative work these first Christians were doing when they used images and metaphors.  They were reading their world, looking for ways to communicate this epic event in ways their listeners can grasp.
I think it is a fair critique to rebut Bell here by saying that these mechanisms of what the cross accomplished---for our transgressions he was pierced---seem to being minimized by Bell when he says they are only "readings" of their world,  by saying they were doing "creative work" done to explain stuff. Of course there is some truth to that, but I think the Russell Moore's critique that I linked to yesterday (on the way Bell thinks blood isn't so necessary to talk abut these days) was very insightful and a very good warning. (Read it here.) 

SO THE STORY THAT WAS HIJACKED IS BEING RETOLD
 So, we've drawn some broad strokes of some broad backgrounds because I believe that narrowing the debate about how Bell views "the fate of every person" we must first appreciate his broader work and ministry and why he is seeking a different way to talk about faith than, well, different than both the so-called liberals and conservatives, most of the mainline and the typical evangelicals.  He wants to do this because of his love for the Bible.  In order to be faithful to the Bible and caught up in faithful expression of its trajectory, we have to reject the view that heaven is only "later" and that salvation is merely "entrance" to the "afterlife" that is really a disembodied existence lived elsewhere.  No, Christian discipleship is based on receiving the mercy of God whose energy is at the very heart of things, as the Triune God of the Bible, creator-redeemer-sustainer, whose Word for creation stands, upholding all things, and uniting all things. (See Colossians 1 and Ephesians 1:20 for helpful summaries of this Christological worldview; Bell is very big on an exalted Christ, and insists that what we think about him matters greatly.)

 Many church folks fail to see this relevant and counter-cultural kind of amazingly grace-filled kind of discipleship leading to the spirituality of the ordinary, the politics of Jesus, the vocation to be peacemakers in the world, the redemption of ordinary life, largely because we are not missional, we are not engaged, we are not fully committed to living out of this enormous love. And that is because the story has been hijacked--starting a long time ago when Plotinas read Plato and influenced Augustine, we might say, and the faith got tangled up with the philosophies of Greece and the gods of Rome.  And we fail, in part, because we've seen and experienced faith as doctrinal, propositional, otherworldly---and, oddly, in the meantime culturally conservative, and altogether safe.  Bell wants to change that, to have our lives transformed by a very alive Christ.

After report on the gospel of John, he notes that "John is telling a huge story, one about God rescuing all of creation."  And he continues,

When people say that Jesus came to die on the cross, so that we can have a relationship with God, yes, that is true.  But that explanation as the first explanation puts us at the center.  For the first Christians, the story was first and foremost, bigger, grander.  More massive.  When Jesus is presented only as the answer that saves individuals form their sin and death, we run the risk of shrinking the Gospel down to something just for humans, when God has inaugurated a movement in Jesus' resurrection to renew, restore, and reconcile everything "or earth on in heaven" (Colossians 1), just as God originally intended it.  The powers of death and destruction have been defeated on the most epic scale imaginable.   Individuals are then invited to see their story in the context of the far larger story, one that includes all of creation.

I think this is solid, orthodox, well-put and a fabulous reminder of the nature of the Christian life. For critics to not see this is unfortunate. Why haven't guys at the Gospel Coalition, for instance, noted that he affirms this stuff that they themselves surely must believe? (Their recent booklet The Restoration of All Things is edited by D.A. Carson & Timothy Keller and is written by Sam Storms.  Is is calm and solid, but not that different, on this point at least, than the man they declare to be a heretic.)  Why have the critics been so one-sided?  Well, of course I know---they think his deficiencies so outweigh his strengths and are on such crucial matters, that it renders whatever good he says nearly useless.  I disagree.

I think to get Bell views of God's redeeming everybody, which is the most controversial part, one simply must grapple first with his wholistic view of God caring about matter, and redeeming the stuff of the cosmos, and how our story fits into this gospel work of Jesus to reclaim His whole wide world. And that victory of God is not about anger and blood as much as it is about victory and healing.  I think that is how Rob would say it: Christ is central and the cross is key, but the resurrection and ascension are of utmost importance as well.  It is all part of the grand story, the news that is "better than that." 

THE TEMPLE DESTROYED AND...
There is no better place to experience Bell's teaching on this than in last year's stunning Easter talk, a visual and poetic presentation that (I hope) will take your breath away.  Watch this as soon as you can---it is magnificently done and a four minute example of what I'd call "the full gospel."  Bell gets it right here and you will understand his deep faith in the goodness of God and the victory of the resurrection and the relevance for daily life now.  Wow.

Once we get this---that Christ's resurrection victory puts all evil on notice and gives great hope for real life---then we can get to some issues about Bell's view of hell, the afterlife, and "the fate of every person."

I will write one more, somewhat more brief, portion of this essay about the Rob Bell Love Waits controversy.

For now, say a prayer, put on your seat belt, and hear this 21st century sermon announcing--proclaiming--that Christ is risen, proof positive that "love wins."   Do. You. Believe. This? 

Do let this fully load, if it has too, as you don't want it to be jumpy or delayed.  Enjoy

Resurrection: Rob Bell from Rob Bell on Vimeo.

March 20, 2011

Love Wins by Rob Bell. One More Time.

love-wins-home.jpgI've written more about the new Rob Bell book Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived (HarperOne; $22.99) and the controversy around it than I have about any other book I've described here at BookNotes.  I've done a few serious reviews over the years (my strong critique in 2002 of John Eldridge's Wild at Heart still gets forwarded around sometimes) and a few of the monthly columns get pretty lengthy, but most often we just highlight, announce, celebrate and ruminate a bit on new titles we have here in the shop.  And, we love making lists, bibliographies, answering questions.  So in a way this epic article and review isn't characteristic of our work here, and I'm not sure why I got so involved, writing so much.  It just seemed like what I should do.  I'm glad some of you found it interesting.  A few even found it helpful.  Thanks be to God.

I have just a few more comments and I'll be done.  Thanks for following along.  You know we make our living selling books and we hope that if you found any of the titles that I listed, mentioned, referred to or cited to be interesting, that you'll order 'em from us.  I tell you about the books that have been influential and the books that seem pertinent because I guess I'm a sort of a teacher at heart.  But I can't tell you how jazzed we are when one of these books mentioned in passing shows up on our website's order form page.  We truly appreciate and value your support.

I hope you didn't give up with my round-about essay, daunting as it was.  In it, I attempted to touch base on a variety of key topics that are important to us.  My thesis was that a few background ideas, if properly understood, will at least help you understand the way Bell pitches his vision, in all of his books, and in the new Love Wins, which suggests a view that God's love wins all people into His new creation; that is, it seems close to what some call Christian universalism.   Getting where he's coming from (discerned in some of the Noomas and reading that I suspect he's done and authors he knows) may help you at least understand more of his approach, and that is always helpful for fair and fruitful consideration and debate. Then, when you read the book itself (the only reliable way to hear him out) you'll be better prepared.

I realize I could be wrong, and there are others ways to tell this story.  For instance, I do not think (but many do) that it is best to recall the old modernist/fundamentalist debates of a century ago, and pitch Bell as nothing more than "souped-up Schleimacher" as one clever critic put it.  I don't think that is accurate and I don't think it is fair and I don't think it is that helpful, finally.  But I could be wrong... 

IT IS WHAT IT IS
rob-bell-150x150.jpgBell is not a systematic theologian, but an artistically-gifted pastor, of a community of faith that has an ethos of open dialogue and authentic seeking and social action,  with a decidedly contemporary (postmodern?) style.  He "tells it slant" to use the Emily Dickinson allusion. He loves questions and he invites us to think. He doesn't like easy answers (even if it could be countered that he offers a few himself.)  His style frustrates some who are pretty right-brained and used to systematic, logically arguments, points, outlines and organized cases being made for this or that coherent position.  His free-flowing style---his writing sounds just like his edgy short-form Nooma videos---is adored by some others. They like his writing style, the allusive punch, the honest invitation to be provoked.  I think this is important to realize, and we ought not accuse him of failing to use a style that he doesn't intend to use, or for not having written the sort of book we expected.  It is what it is, and it is not a seriously thorough study, systematic and comprehensive.  It is a sermon or two, a polemic, a piece of performance art, almost.  This is not to say it ought not to be critiqued, but it doesn't even have footnotes (as I never tire of complaining about.) 

It is what it is, which may not be what you wanted or what is needed.  Some think it is very exciting to hear, and helpful.  People I admire and trust, like Richard Mouw and Eugene Peterson, have recommend that it be read and considered.  Please see my list below if you want something more detailed and studious, a slow gaze under the microscope rather than an exciting look through a telescope.

DO YOU LIKE THIS FROM THE PREFACE?
I know that the emergent folks and those moving away from evangelical certainties and the supporters of iconoclasts like Rob Bell often say that they have come across churches that don't allow questions, that demand conformity, and they know folks who have been spiritually abused. I don't doubt it.  But I sometimes wonder how common this is.  Maybe guys like Bell and McLaren create this tableaux, this picture of rigid fundamentalists that stomp on any free spirit that is a bit overstated.  And I'm not so sure that's fair.  Ahh, but then I realize that the other Christian bookstore in our area had little warning signs against the last Donald Miller book and can't stomach selling books by Catholics. And I hear of somebody who was ridiculed by her youth leader for asking a deep question.   So, the lock-step enforcement of orthodoxy may be a bit heavy-handed at times.  (And don't get me started about how political or theological conservatives feel if they are a part of largely liberal parishes or judicatories. You have to know this stuff cuts both ways, and we find as much bigotry on the left as we do the right.)

So Bell has this on the second page:

Some communities don't permit open, honest inquiry about the things that matter most.  Lots of people have voiced a concern, expressed a doubt, or raised a question, only to be told by their family, church, friends, or tribe, "We don't discuss those things here."

I believe the discussion itself is divine.  Abraham does his best to bargain with God, most of the book of Job consists of arguments by Job and his friends about the deepest questions of human suffering.  God is practically on trial in the poems of Lamentations, and Jesus responds to almost every question he's asked with...a question.

"What do you think? How do you read it?" he asks, again and again and again.

The ancient sages said the words of the sacred text were black letters on a white page---there's all that white space, waiting to be filled with our responses and discussions and debates and opinions and longings and desires and wisdom and insights.  We read the words, and then enter into a discussion that has been going on for thousands of years across cultures and continents.

My hope is that this frees you.  There is no question that Jesus cannot handle, no discussion too volatile, no issues too dangerous.  

A GOD WHO CRIES---BRILLIANT OR EVASIVE?
I'm not sure why so many were angry when, being interrogated by a remarkably rude MSNBC interviewer, Martin Bashir, Bell pointed out that he is not a theologian, but a working pastor.  I do not think that was disingenuous of him; he is not an academic (and he has not claimed his book is a scholarly treatise, or even his last word on the subject.) Bell has written an easy to read book full of invitations to think things through, offering plausible Christ-centered, Biblically-oriented answers to what he suggests are concerns that many have, and that have been voiced often throughout church history.  He is replying to felt needs of his tribe. I do not think he is merely trying to "make the gospel palatable" (which may be an insulting accusation as if he is knowingly fudging the facts; Bashir could have asked it in a much more fruitful way instead of how he did which was professionally inexcusable.)

Love Wins
attempts to point towards a vision--God's love is more than one attribute but his most defining essence---and that love is wired into the nature of things, and will be effective to inaugurate redeeming goodness---which he thinks may resolve huge human tensions, contradictory Bible teaching, and allow him to proclaim the gospel (as he understands it) both faithfully and fruitfully.

To make these sorts of judgments of him--he's disingenuous, he's intentionally evasive, he's making stuff up, he's sneaky---isn't my read at all. 
(This does not mean he is right, of course, or couldn't do a better job of articulating the basics of the book.)  Making these sorts of observations come close to maligning his character and verge on judging his motives and heart, a move that is forbidden by Jesus.

MSNBC AND THEODICY
In that interview the very bluntly asked first question was the unanswerable quandary of the mysteries of an all good and all powerful God allowing the horrors of the sort that we just witnesses with the earthquake in Japan.  Rob answered---excellently, I thought---that we start that conversation (trying to wrap our minds around paradoxes and mysteries and sorrows) with the assumption that God weeps with us, that God has deep empathy for human suffering.  He avoided the dead-end debate and asserted something profoundly true and pastorally helpful on national TV.  The interviewer was irritated, implying he wasn't answering the question, asked him again.  And many have accused Bell of equivocating, being evasive, and knowingly provocative.

Well, if I were caught off guard on national TV and asked first off one of the most complicated theological questions one can ask, I'm not sure what I'd say or how good I'd look.  Bell's answer was true and rooted in the goodness of God and the uniquely Christian insight about incarnation: God cares.  God gets involved and His love is empathetic. It is the starting point for him and he said that. 

I once saw an hour long debate once between two exceptionally thoughtful, passionate, respected evangelical leaders on this very matter.  One insists that God's sovereignty is such that the question must be resolved in a way that highlights God's control over all thing.  This is a pastor who believes it is pastorally irresponsible to say that we don't know about the why: we do know and should tell the suffering that God allows all things to happen for our good and His glory.  So horrors like that are easily named.  God rules everything.  It wasn't an accident.  God is good and has the whole world in his hand.  Trust him and find joy in all things.  As when they asked Jesus about whose sin it was when there was a disaster Jesus said just be glad it didn't happen to you.  That's what we should advise folks who wonder about the horrors of this world.

 â€¨â€¨The other rigorous, evangelical leader, himself no stranger to global suffering and the problems of evil, wasn't buying it.  He took a very different approach.  He cited a verse that suggested it was wrong to even hint that God might be behind what we simply have to call evil.  No, God is not to blame.  And on the conversation went between to men I respect.  The first, with tons of Scripture on his side, nonetheless seemed really weird to me.  Who says these kinds of things?  Is that what Bashir wanted out of Bell? 

CREATION UNTAMED
Recently, an entire book came out on this, especially on the topic of natural disasters.  (We know there are many on theodicy, and practical ones for individuals like C. S. Lewis' Problem of Pain, or, more interestingly written, Phil Yancey's Where Is God When It Hurts?)

319sj5CL7oL._SL500_AA300_.jpgLutheran Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim has pondered these things his whole life, it seems, and has written Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Brazos; $19.99.) I don't think it resolves all this, but it is a mature study of all kinds of Biblical texts.  It has gathered rave reviews from the likes of Dennis Olson (Princeton Seminary) and Walter Brueggemann (Columbia Theological Seminary) and Tremper Longman III (Westmont College.)  It certainly would resonate with Bell's convictions about the goodness of creation, the unleashing of creation-wide disturbance, and God's loving purposes as the forces of chaos are conquered by Christ.  It would also resonant with his sense that there dare not be easy answers or glib rebuttals...this is vexing, untamed stuff.

Maybe the TV guy should have Terry Fretheim on and as him that question.  To say that Bell was wishy washy because he said that we must start with a God who sheds tears along with us seems to me quite unfair. But, anyway, this is the book to read on this exact question, written by somebody who knows the Biblical material about creation and chaos well.

I have very good friends that think Bell was evasive and weak in that interview and do not share my frustrations with Bashir, the host.  There is very interesting to me, this diversity of dispositions, I guess, to interpret this in very different ways. But there ya go...

THIS IS WHAT ECCELESIA REFORMATA SEMPER REFORMANDA LOOKS LIKE
There is, it seems to me, a lot of anger about Bell, anxiety about evangelicals who, from within the movement, ask questions that others (especially mainline pastors and thinkers) have asked for a century or more.  I wonder if he is a bit of a symbol of theological drift, and he's being treated as a bit of a case study, or a scape goat.  I think this theological confusion matter is of great importance, and on one hand I really understand the angst about it. I share some of that angst.  But this is the way it works--we all get to share in this "priesthood of all believers" stuff, offering our views and submitting to each others ideas as we struggle to grow in faithfulness and wisdom.

 There is, or so it seems to me, a pretty intense mistrust in this process, an unwillingness to listen, a drawing of lines, a choosing of sides, a quick jump to nail the other. Or to even think or read a book that might be "bad" or unpopular with certain gatekeepers.  I almost fear it could lead to a disinterest in what I take to be a staple of Christian living: ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.  I understand, of course, that the reformation plea that the church always be maturing and changing and reforming herself isn't an excuse for weirdo theological experimentation or for allowing any old idea to get equal play or be seriously considered.  Of course not.  But those of us who are Protestants, especially, are drawn to movements that are dynamic, not static.  Right?  Or, are the Catholics right, and that is the undoing of things?

We have reason to be concerned about the tendencies within church bodies and as my own denomination falters and evangelical churches get weirder by the year, who knows where it will lead.  But I am not so sure that nailing down the hatches and ramping up the loudness of the critique is helpful.  I've said before that I have concern about the ethics of reviewing, about playing fair, about civility as a requirement for Christian engagement.  But I'm also wondering what is going to move the conversation and the church forward.  Inviting everyone to think for themselves isn't quite right--the apostolic tradition has been handed down and the Bible does have some pretty non-negotiable teachings.  I'm just not always sure which of those teachings are the non-negotiable ones.  There is tons more against social injustice, say, but those who feel the strongest about rebuking doctrinal missteps seem to be much less willing to respect the range of opinion on, say, economics or creation-care.  Why is that?

IN CONVERSATION ABOUT WHOSE INTERPRETATIONS?
You recall that I've foisted upon you, dear readers, many mentions of the book Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Walsh & Keesmaat (IVP; $23.00.)  One of the great features of that book is the rather traditionalist conversation partner that appears--an interlocutor--in italics, in every so many chapters.  This turns their unique (and they think deeply Biblical) interpretations into a discussion, and their critic is right there in the book

Brian and Sylvia wisely anticipated what more traditionalist readers might say---theologically, philosophically, socially, politically---and made room in the book for those conversations to be hosted.  It was a way to advance the themes and methods of the book by way of hearing and addressing the typical arguments from typical (evangelical) readers.  I note this not only because it is ecumenical and hospitable and just but because it works.  That italicized pesky fellow keeps coming in and holding their feet to the fire, asking good questions, and they end up having large and terribly important discussions about whose interpretations counts.  Why some views or approaches are privileged over others.  Who gets to say what fruitful practices emerge from a reading and why?  These are the sorts of questions floating just inches below the Rob Bell controversy and Colossians Remixed is an example of how to have this kind of conversation.

Another resource I might mention here is one we have promoted before, a great book called Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in 9780801071478.gifCommunity by Tim Condor & Daniel Rhodes (Baker; $16.99.)  It is a call to wrestle with texts in a local, honest, supportive community.  It seems to me most of us don't really have people "doing live together" in intentional and vulnerable and accountable friendship who can do this sort of experiment in communal discourse.  But this is the Bible as it is meant to be studied/debated/lived.  Very highly recommended.   

I AM SORRY
My first two pieces, before the two-part review, were mostly about the state of the art of the debate, advocating for this kind of convicted debate, conducted with civility and kept in perspective. I gather that most BookNotes readers appreciated that, more or less.  You read widely and make up your minds (hopefully in conversation with a local faith community) about what you are reading, but always want to be kind and good. I admire our audience and am proud of our circle of friends and fans.  But some have suggested that to even ask for "niceness" is itself a compromise.  I do not think that.  I think that we are called to be kind no matter what.  And there were times in my last several posts where I have not been.

I have made some digs at dualists and those who are not interested in the ways and reasons the faith has become dysfunctional and confused, or at least not in my particular analysis.  I have implied, perhaps, that those who have serious doubts about Bell are not really thinking very deeply, missing the big picture. Even if I didn't say ugly things (I don't think I did) at least one friend observed that my heat was coming on pretty strong, giving the impression that I was pretty mad.  I did not intend that, but my cadence and tone and passion may have made me sound a bit dogmatic and unwilling to admit there are different takes on all this.   I am sorry.

READING ECUMENICALLY
As one whose future is dependent upon selling ecumenical resources to a wide variety of readers who have an ongoing commitment to reading widely and thinking deeply and enjoying the give and take of what I called a "living theology"  I am worried when folks just simply don't want to allow for many different ways of expressing faith and the deepest questions of life.   I don't want to think that we are losing at our attempt to nurture a movement of open-minded readers,  happy thinkers, eager learners, evangelical readers who read mainline scholars and mainline pastors who read evangelical authors, Protestants who read Catholics and--I believe in miracles---Catholics who read Anabaptists and Mennonites who read Pentecostals.  I hope we aren't just stuck in our own small ruts, echo-chambers of our own perspectives.  I think this is the way of wisdom and learning, and it is a large part of what we do here, selling a real diversity of books to a wide diversity of friendly customers. 

We have on occasion lost customers and friends because we carry this book or that one. To be honest, the books they disapproved of weren't that bad, either.  Sigh.

GLAD FOR SO MANY BOOKS
I do not agree with all of Bell (or McLaren) and I said so.  But I am delighted to have a mind (such as it is) and the freedom to read and the ability to buy books and engage in these sorts of learning opportunities. 

We once hosted some folks from the Soviet Union back during the cold war.  We spirited a lady from their group away from the hotel (watched by KGB we had reason to think) at 3:00 am so she could see a real American bookstore. It was fun showing her books in the middle of the night, with this (very real) sense of danger around us.  I will never forget my realization that we live in a culture that has allowed for the development of freedom of the press and the ability to buy books and the cool amount of publishers and bookshops here and there.  I hope we do not squander that.  And I hope the kind of thinking that goes on in a culture when there are a wide array of bookstores supporting a wide variety of publishers can be sustained in this internet, amazon world of ours.  I guess--as Bill Mallonee says in the middle of one of his songs: I guess this is where the strings come in.  And I give my pitch for indie bookstores.

So.  I am glad that there are interesting, passionate, upbeat writers with their particular gifts, like Bell, despite my dissatisfaction with some of his method and some of his conclusions. We are happy to promote them and glad for the chance to talk about them.  Buy 'em if you want to  or save you coins for something more useful for you.  But let's do think about how we talk about the book, and think about the idea. 

 I understand those that think Bell is outside of the standard, orthodox tradition in his claim that there could be chances after death for people to accept God's great love that he has for them.

 And I understand those that think Bell is simply inadequate in dealing with the many Bible verses that say there is a literal hell and it will be populated.

 And I understand those that say if one does away with the notion of sinners who end up estranged from God it most likely illustrates an understatement of the significant teachings of the attributes of God, God's own self-revelation as One who is holy.  

And I understand those who say that any such equivocation will surely lead to a radical shift in how the cross is understood; it will necessarily erode the most salient facts of the Christian faith, that Christ came to the world to offer His life as a sacrifice for many."

And I can understand friends who will make fun of me for having

one-sentence paragraphs

like

Rob Bell.

Does.

But I do find it hard to understand those that meanly mock him, that demand simple answers, that confuse nuance for equivocation, who wonder if he's in this for the money, as if he loves the anguish of the controversy, as if this isn't painful.  I have a heavy heart about it, that is for sure.  I think there is some mean-spiritedness out there and it makes me a little sad. And I can't quite agree with (as I said in my second piece before my reviews) that it matters as much as some suggest.  I don't think that one loses one salvation for moving towards wrong views.  We aren't graced by God in Christ because of our articulation of the process of justification.  The gospel is a gift, not earned or deserved, not even by understanding it very, very well.  We do not need to be spot on about much of anything.

* * *
I was going to note a few specific concerns I have about Bell's case, listing a few less-than adequate notions and a couple of Biblical texts he seems to miss.  I can like where he's going for a few pages, and then fine considerable disagreement with how he ends the section.  But I think there has been plenty of that, tons of close readings, many critics and defenders.  I don't think I would say anything else of much worth, so I'll summarize my lengthy essay by saying it quickly one more time.



ONE MORE SUPER SUMMARY
Bell rejects the weak-kneed, culturally-irrelevant, and sometimes toxic formulations of faith that seem to have been influenced in their understanding of the faith by a version of Christianity that has been enmeshed for centuries with a Western worldview that may have been influenced by the assumptions of Plato in the first century.  Neo-Platonism, especially, separated God and life, by utilizing Plato's assumptions about the badness of material things ("matter" he called it) and the ideals of spiritual things (what Plato called "forms.)   The form/matter split evolved into the body/soul dichotomy, which was translated into the huge gulf between the so-called sacred and profane.  Church and theology become more important than ordinary life and other topics, faith was reduced to the affirmation of intellectual propositions and most of the rest of life---science, politics, business, university education, art--- was considered unrelated to the real concerns of the gospel.  As the church argued amongst itself, the culture moved on, we ended up with a largely idolatrous society, reeling under the weight of Western modernity, secularized science, faith in technology and the gods of nationalism and empire. I didn't say this, but there are both liberal and conservative political and cultural ideologies that have emerged from the thought world of the 1700s. 

53446268_b.jpgThe best book on that, by the way, is by David Koyszis and is simply brilliant.  It is called Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (IVP; $24.00.)  This is, as I have said, a study of political ideas, but it gets at how both the left and the right have their ideological roots in some of these same dilemmas construed by the Enlightenment because of the older influences of the Judua-Greek worldview.  Yep, things really do go back to the Greeks, and this analysis could not only help us see the world that Bell is trying to step into in a new way, but help us somewhat understand the ways cultural progressives and traditionalists tend to see things like this.  There are some exceptions (I'd like to think I am one) but by and large most critics of Bell and conservative and most supporters are liberal.  This book helps in very profound ways get below the surface of some of that... 

(Residual Christian values have indeed shaped much good in the West---think of religious freedom, literacy, notions of human rights, hospitals and orphanages and reforms that fought slavery and stood for women's rights.  No small things, to be sure!) 

Still, a sacred-secular dualism, as described, for instance in The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian Worldview by Brian Walsh &The-Transforming-Vision-9780877849735.jpg Richard Middleton (IVP; $16.00)  one of my all-time favorite books, has left a legacy of the irrelevance of the church to much of public life, and our doctrines deeply disconnected to the ordinary lives of most ordinary people. People are confused because they don't have a Christian worldview and can't inhabit the world in a sane and sustainable and coherent way. Francis Schaeffer's admittedly overly-simplified overview of Western civ, How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture (Crossway; $19.99) is well worth considering.  I doubt if Bell would like it much, but, more than he may know, its tracing of the geneology of ideas from the pagan Greek dualism to the Renaissance Christian humanists to the secularized Rationalists of the Enlightenment to the rise (in reaction to them) the Romantics and the bohemian counter-culture---whose children so love the Noomas---it's all there.  Very interesting, and almost relevant, I'd say.

That overview has shaped some of Nancy Pearcy's views, too, which is why I so, so commended her interesting, passionate take on the rise of modern art and pop culutre, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind Morals and Meaning (Broadman; $26.99.)  You may recall that we named it one of the best books of 2010, suggesting that even if you disagree with some of her assessments of some particular modern art or films, say, her overall attention to the way dualism has shaped the rise of rationalism on one hand and romanticism on the other is brilliant.

Huh?  So now I've gone and linked up the analysis of conservative art critic Nancy Pearcy to my effort to understand the secularizing deformation of our culture that animates Rob Bell, who wants to affirm the real, real goodness of creation (and culture.)  I am sure Nancy would disagree with Rob's heterodox view of hell.  I wouldn't know if Rob would agree with the thrust of the argument in Saving Leonardo.  But I'm telling ya, here in Dallastown, tonight, I see a connection.  She is one more powerful voice exposing the problem with a culture that has a twisted view of truth and a broken worldview which has born bad fruit in our congregations and mission.  Bell gets that, and he realizes that an all encompassing vision of God's reign on earth, the spirituality of everything, is the alternative script.  All of life redeemed theology and the hope for new creation trumps dualism any day.

Yes, I think these things are connected.  Even if Bell's (admittedly large) detail about hell is still hugely contested. 

Bell proclaims and invites us to live into a counter-narrative to that sort of Greco-Roman, dualistic faith, or the modernist versions of it Ms Pearcy grapples with, replacing it with one that I sometimes call, borrowing the phrase from Tom Sine "whole life discipleship."  That is, creation is being renewed in all ways because God's Kingdom is bringing heaven to Earth.  The Bible promises that Christ is reconciling all things to Himself and this means we are not destined to be ethereal souls evacuated to another place popularly called heaven.  Our lives can become avenues for daily spirituality and God is glorified in our ordinary work, vocations, careers and callings.  Which takes us to Bell's insight about the Bible.  

CREATION-FALL-REDEMPTION-RESTORATION
161979_115589248458408_608655_n.jpgThe great story of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is that God is rescuing his good but fallen creation and turning it into His Kingdom.  The Bible says that those saved by Christ will live forever with God in a redeemed and glorified cosmos.  I mentioned a forthcoming book and it will open our eyes and hearts to this in ways that will be incredibly good: Art That Tells a Story compiled, edited and designed by Chris Brewer (published by The Gospel That Tells a Story; $24.95. Due April 2011.)  The brief text by Michael Witmer will explore this "counter narrative to dualism" by commenting on the wonderful array of contemporary paintings that illuminate "creation" "fall" "redemption" and "restoration."  I have seen most of the art for this and know of most of the painters (who are involved in reputable Christian art organizations such as CIVA or IAM.) The painters and Mr. Witmer and the designer Chris Brewer most likely do not know anything particular about Rob Bell, and he may not know about this coffee-table project yet, so don't misunderstand.  Bell has no connection to Brewer.
 
Although it is not released by a major publisher, this forthcoming book---combining artistic innovation and reliably solid Biblical commentary---may, in many ways, be more important than Love Wins.  It certainly would at least get at Rob's interest in how God is "making all things news" and Christ's work is wide in scope and the way the Bible holds together as a narrative.

TREES
Rob Bell has taught us that we live in a time "between the trees" as he poetically describes it in the Nooma DVD called Trees.  He shows us (by literally planting two trees, and then finishing the talk by standing between them) that we are in the time between the goodness of the first trees (the garden of Genesis 1-2) and the last ones (the trees in the urban garden of Revelation 21-22.)  Faith is trusting God for the journey, realizing that our past and future impact how we live now, and believing that God's great love will guide history towards its final disclosure.
003.pngThis is fantastic stuff!  Bell reminds those who have ears to hear that our lives do matter.  And, as he said emphatically in the controversial MSNBC interview, what we think about Jesus matters.

Through no particular work or virtue of our own, God in God's love is victorious over the dysfunctions and brokenness of the cursed creation (Romans 8) and this is the broadest way to understand the full scope of the impact of the Resurrection.  Bell recommends N.T. Wright's excellent book Surprised By Hope which in great detail explicates the implications for our views of heaven, and our mission today, if this notion is correct.  We are not bound for heaven but we are bound for a new creation where all things are redeemed.

Within that counter-narrative---a new creation theology of all of life redeemed as Christ's victory breaks into the sorrows of this world--we then can see that the old Platonic ways of asking the questions (do all souls go to heaven) is itself not particularly helpful.  The questions of judgment and renewal are to be framed by a good God who wants to and intends to remake His whole world.  Whether the huge facts of how God's love gave human's freedom, and whether that freedom allows for ultimate autonomy is a paradox within a mystery.  Does God's redemptive love "win"?  Does God get what God wants?  You can read the book for yourself, but Bell's speculations about the compelling and effective nature of Divine love is not as troubling as some make it to be.  I do not think he is fully correct, but it is position worth considering.

* * *

WE HOPE FOR GRACE & MERCY
The other day, when I was writing at my local coffee-shop---the time that attractive and composed woman offered support to a troubled dad, which was an epiphany to me that this debate is pretty arcane and uninteresting to most ordinary folks---I had another conversation.  (Why do I go out of the bookstore to read when I know I'm going to bump in to as many interesting people there as I do here at the shop?  Ha!) I was telling a customer what I was working on, a pastor of a conservative denomination and a strictly traditional theologian himself.  I was a bit embarrassed to have him see me with Love Wins, since I assume he had followed the early days of the dust-up.

This fine pastor, with his orthodox and rigorous Reformed theology blurted out that he sure wishes Bell was right.  He did not imply that he thought Bell had much of a Biblical case, but he says he knows many non-Christians, even family members.  It is laudable and natural, even loving, to wish for their best.  He is a passionate evangelist, too, so I am sure he is doing what he can to give mature testimony to "the hope that is within you."  But, at the end of the day, as a decent fellow who has good relationship with unchurched folk, he hopes for extended grace.  We are all sinners who receive undeserved mercy.  We trust in God's goodness.


He was surprised when I complimented him; he said he figured everybody certainly would wish for the best for their loved ones.  I replied that I had gotten more than one recent email, and read more than one blog post, where it seemed to me that the historic orthodox view had become grounds for seeming to delight in the lostness of sinners.  For being glad that "we" have the truth and "they" don't, glib (at best) about the fate of the damned.  I don't know if some of these critics of Bell have hard hearts towards others, but these few sure seemed to relish in the goodness of the idea of hell.  They're all about it, and (or so I seem to gather) they it isn't just that they feel they must hold to this view because the Bible seems to teach it, but they are eager and happy to affirm it.  I think that is odd.


And so, I commend to you again, the book Uncommon Decency by Richard Mouw (IVP; $16.00.)  He believes in hell, and has a chapter about it, in fact.  And he has some chapters about how to converse robustly but fairly on disagreements about theology, doctrine, sexuality and such.  He advises us to be civil and gracious in our congregations, church bodies and in the public square.  And he invites us to a regimen of spiritual practices--Mouw likes the word piety---that create in use a civil spirit.  We love because He first loved us, John tells us. Uncommon Decency is a fine set of guidelines for living that out, for learning to be people of great grace. 

One chapter is especially important to me (and some of my fellow Kuyperians) and I have mentioned it often.  Although Mouw is Dutch Calvinist who like's Kuyper's pushy vision of proclaiming the rule of Christ over "every square inch" of creation, he worries that those of us in public work, wanting to be ambassadors of transformation or agents of influence, forget to be humble.  We need to serve others, and not just argue about our good ideas.  That chapter is worth the price of the book.  It is called "Abraham Kuyper, Meet Mother Theresa."  Pretty nice, eh?

Another book that has been rolling around in my heart and mind every since I started typing51MPO4TV-ZL._SL500_AA300_.jpg these long reports is one of the best books I have read in years.  I named it so a year or more ago when it was released but I think we should all think about it again.  It is called Reordered Loves, Reordered Lives: Learning the Deep Meaning of Happiness by David K. Naugle (Eerdmans; $17.00)  He writes both as a good educator and fine philosopher, but also as a deeply Godly man, balanced and kind and deep.  He basically says that we need to do more than get our ideas right, our worldview lenses polished.  God must do a work in our hearts.  We have to want to be faithful, want to be civil, want the right stuff (in the right way, no less.)  In other words, the work of the social change activist, or any serious Christian, must begin inside and our inner longings--our desires--indicate more of who we are than merely what we claim we believe.  Amen and amen.  This is a really, really wise book and I think all of us who tend to get fired up about ideas and enter debates of this sort need good guides to how to be the sort of people we should be.  I like books on character development (The recent After You Believe comes to mind by N. T. Wright) but Naugle's book is so much richer than most.  Highly recommended.

THE OTHER BOOKS ROB BELL WANTS YOU TO READ

These are the ones that are listed in the back pages which he recommends for further study.   

Bell is a very interesting guy, with diverse reading tastes, and is more ecumenically inclined than many evangelicals, or so it seems.  He's known to be very smart, and he is able to be pretty inventive since he serves at a non-denominational church which, I gather, has an ethos of being open-minded and wanting to explore serious questions of real discipleship.  So he recommends some books. 

Proclaiming the Scandal of the Cross: Contemporary Images of the Atonement  Markproclaiming-scandal-cross-contemporary-images-atonement-mark-d-baker-paperback-cover-art.jpg Baker (Baker) $22.00  I described this a bit in yesterday's post and noted that it is pretty important if this is the one book he chose to reflect on the nature of the cross, justification, atonement and such.  He has a whole chapter on the topic in the book, and although I highlighted some unusual academic resources that show how some are re-thinking the nature of the work of Christ, those (that I showed) are not the ones he cites.  This one is.  It includes a diverse array of thinkers, short pieces, articles, essays, poems and readings.  I agree with him that it is highly recommended.

He invites us to explore (as he puts it) "Christ over every square inch of creation" (a line he surely knows comes from Kuyper)  by listing the remarkably interesting The Mystery of Christ...and Why We Don't Get It by Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon (Eerdmans) $20.00 . Right on.  We have any books of Capon that are still in print and regularly sell his renowned reflection on food and eating, Supper of the Lamb.  

Image.ashx_.jpegOn hell, he suggests the classic novel by C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, (HarperOne; $13.99.) An interesting call, and safely provocative, for sure.  You might know that this is something like an allegory, a fantastical novel about a bus-ride from hell to heaven.  Those who have found themselves disinterested in the things of God seem well suited for hell, and, frankly, would be woefully unhappy in heaven.  Bell seems to resonate and draw upon this general line of thought and it doesn't surprise me that he commends it. I hope you know it.

On the two sons in the story Jesus tells (which takes up a chapter of Love Wins) he recommends PCA pastor Timothy Keller's fabulous little book The Prodigal God (Dutton; it just came out in paperback; $14.00.)  Excellent.  The DVD of Keller lecturing on it is fabulous. This is one of the finest little books on the Bible I've read in years and I'm glad he borrows from it and we should be glad Bell is recommending it. 

On "growth and change and all that" he says to see Fr. Richard Rohr, naming Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer (Crossroad; $17.95) and The Naked Now: Learning to See As The Mystics Did (Crossroad; $19.95) both are popular books of fairly generic spirituality.  I said in my piece yesterday that I like the first better than the second as it don't seem Christological enough--and is overpriced! Still, Rohr is quite prolific and usually pretty great.  I am deeply drawn to contemplative resources but worry if they promote only a vague mysticism.  

On "who and what God is" he recommends the interfaith scholar, Methodist theologian and true gentleman Huston Smith and his book The Soul of Christianity which is the oddest book on the list; it does do an interesting job doing some broad-brush strokes about modernity and the mess we're in, and since I've made a big deal about Bell's all-of-creation-restored, stuff as a counter to the history of dualism and the rise of secularized modernity, I suppose this fits.  But it is a pretty standard liberal view of the Bible and faith; Publishers Weekly called his interpretations idiosyncratic.  This choice is a puzzlement and not a great sign, in my book. What was he thinking?  He recommended this for the nature of God.  Go with Tozer, or Packer, I'd say.

On resurrection and new creation, as I've earlier said, he properly points us to the must-read N.T. Wright's Surprised By Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne; $24.99.) Great. This is the most important book on the list, and in many ways one of the most important books on this entire topic.  I've mentioned before the great DVDs that are available of Wright lecturing.  Excellent for adult ed classes or a small group study or book discussion group that doesn't want to wade through the entire book.

Love-Wins.jpgAnd that is how the Rob Bell book, Love Wins: A Books about Heaven, Hell, and the Fare of Every Person Who Ever Lived, ends.  Suggesting further study, more reading, thinking and living differently, in conversation with that wide stream he talks about. I think he's made some fine recommendations, and it is clear that he wants you to take up your calling to grow in a variety of ways, not just by thinking about hell and judgement.  The breadth of his suggestions is interesting and mostly pretty good.  



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A FEW OTHER BOOKS ABOUT HELL FROM VARIOUS VIEWPOINTS
The Last Word (and the Word After That): A Tale of Faith, Doubt, and a New Kind of Christianity
Brian McLaren (Jossy Bass) This is the third in a series of novels where one of the leaders of the emergent conversation is hoping to illustrate his shifts in thinking about faith and Christian discipleship.  This fast-paced, quick read is a story about some "new kind of Christians" that are researching and defending a more expansive view of God's grace.  You learn a lot in the setting of a novel.



Razing Hell: Rethinking Everything You've Been Taught About God's Wrath and Judgment Sharon L. Baker (Westminster/John Knox)  $17.00.  While it deserves a longer review, it might be helpful to know Baker, a pleasant professor at an evangelical college,  spends most of the time in the book trying to understand and re-frame violent images of God, including vengeful images that are sometimes taught by those with a strictly penal substitutionary view of the atonement.  It is upbeat and interesting, covers a lot of ground about wrath, encourages us to read the Bible through the lenses of Jesus and his Kingdom ethics, but really doesn't study the texts about hell very much.  She posits at the end a quick argument for a postmortem purifying fire,  the possibility of a second chance and even, for some,  they are extinguished in a limited annihilationism view. Whew.  

Crucial Questions about Hell  Ajith Fernando (Crossway) $9.99  With a forward by J. I. Packer, you can be assured this is classic, solid stuff.  I do not think it struggles hard with hard-ball questions or the anguished concerns of those dissatisfied with the traditional view, but it is, nonetheless, the best, basic study of the traditional position, plainspoken and crisp.  As Packer says, "When the badness of the bad news about Hell is unmuffled, the goodness of the good news about Christ and eternal life shines brighter.  Very clear and Biblical. This is out of print and we only have a few left.

Hell Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents Eternal Punishment edited by Christopher Morgan (Zondervan) $19.99  This may be one of the very best semi-scholarly collections by evangelical scholars making a strong case for the traditional view.  There is a chapter by J.I. Packer against universalism, a piece by Sinclair Ferguson on how to preach about hell, Christopher Morgan critiques annihilationism, Douglas Moo, Greg Beale , Daniel Block and other esteemed academics offer valuable studies making this a must read for those seriously interested.

Hell: The Logic of Damnation  Jerry Walls (University of Notre Dame Press) $24.95  Walls is Professor of Philosophy of Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary and brings a philosopher's expertise to this serious study.  He maintains that some traditional views of hell are defensible and can be believed with intellectual and moral integrity.  Some views, he demonstrates, are compatible with traditional notions of God's omnipotence and omniscience, but also with a strong account of God's goodness.  And, of course, he attends to questions of human freedom and the consequences of evil.  This is careful philosophical theology, with reliable Biblical research.

An excerpt from his conclusion states,  

...the burden of proof clearly rests on those who take this option (universalism.) The fact remains that the doctrine of eternal hell has in its favor an impressive consensus which outweighs the universalist strand in theology.  In view of this, the traditional doctrine of hell should not be abandoned unless the case against it is clear and compelling, both scripturally and philosophically.

Four Views on Hell edited by William Crockett & Stanley Gundry (Zondervan) $16.99  This is another in the popular "four views" point/counter-point series.  There are four views (literal, metaphorical, purgatorial, and conditional.)  Basically, two tend to favor more traditional views of hell, and two represent different alternative views.  Each offer their chapter and then the other three respond.  An excellent way into various views, options, explanations.


9780830822553.jpgTwo Views of Hell: A Biblical & Theological Dialogue  Edward William Fudge & Robert A. Peterson *(IVP) $18.00  This is an argument about annihilationism, the view that says that the notion of an immortal soul is inherited from the Greeks and never taught in the Bible.  Some who respond in faith to Christ's saving initiative may join Him in everlasting life, but those who do not just die, without torment or consciousness.  This is a very interesting discussion.  Fudge has a bigger book on the subject, and Peterson has written widely on the traditional view.  Fudge offers some very, very good ideas and Peterson refutes them one by one. You'll have to read this to decide for yourself who makes the most reasonable and compelling case.

If Grace Is True: Why God Will Save Every Person James Mulholland & Philip Gulley  (HarperOne) $14.99  This is a lovely essay, sweetly written and nicely thought-though with verve and hope.  Of course, most would say it is not faithful to all of the Bible, but these Quakers are well worth knowing about.  I think the more practical sequel, If God Is Love: Rediscovering Grace in an Ungraceful World is inspiring, and the next follow-up (If The Church Were Christian) is very provocative.  Not hard to read, and many will not agree, but we can at least ponder their simple faith and affirm their urgent call to take Christ seriously.
 
Universal Salvation? The Current Debate  edited by Robin Parry & Christopher Partridge (Eerdmans)  This is the best scholarly overview with a variety of pro-and-con perspectives and numerous other angles and nuances.  This includes several very well-argued essays in favor of a more universalist position written by a strong evangelical British philosopher, Thomas Talbott, with others offering critique and rebuttal. Serious, valuable, dense. A helpful forward by Gabriel Fackre.

The Evangelical Universalist  MacDonald (Cascade)  Gregory MacDonald What an interesting new case, made by someone with a pseudonym, apparently unwilling to allow his professional reputation to be attacked because of his floating this perspective. (Gregory, by the way, is an allusion to Gregory of Nyssa and MacDonald refers to C.S. Lewis' favorite write, the Scot George MacDonald.  There is a lot of Bible in here, and he shows how a Christ-centered universalism is, in his view, at the heart of the Scriptures.  This mystery man has also just edited a source reader examining Christian universalism in all sorts of historic figures called All Shall Be Well: Explorations in Universal Salvation and Christian Theology from Origen to Moltmann. (Cascade; $40.00) It includes some very sharp scholars (for instance, Robert Sweetman, one of our finest medievalists, on Julian of Norwich) and Jesuit Edward Oakes on Hans Urs von Balthasar.  Nik Ansell has a chapter does the chapter on Moltmann.  

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March 23, 2011

I did a vlog, a real video podcast. Live from Hearts & Minds.

Our youngest daughter, a cyber-schooled senior, is soon on her way to China for a 5 week intensive language course.  You can't imagine how excited we are all as she prepares to graduate this spring and head off to Calvin College in Michigan.  She got her graduation present early: a new camera.  To mess around with it, she recorded a spur-of the-moment summary of our five part Rob Bell Love Wins BookNote blog series.  She gussied it up with one of our favorite Sigur Rus songs, and here it is.  Our first  video podcast.  When she gets back next month, maybe we'll do it again.

I can't believe I didn't introduce myself or say the name of our book store.  And I skipped the important stuff about civility and being ecumenical.  Or the benefits of reading widely.  Didn't mention Plato.  I didn't cite the books from our review by Mouw or Walsh or McLaren, let alone John Piper or Bell's critics or the strengths of their arguments.  I gave a shout out to the Nooma Trees.

I wish I would have said "creation-fall-redemption-restoration" but I wasn't thinking.  I should have included something about Bell's very orthodox and serious Christology.  I mentioned the restoring reign of God over all things.  And that we have the book; I didn't mention the previously listed BookNotes blog special discount. (What kind of businessman am I?)

May Jesus Christ be praised, to the glory of the Father, in the power of the Spirit for the sake of the world.

Thanks Marissa.  This is way cool for an old guy like me.


March 25, 2011

Connecting the dots with graced serendipty: books that come to mind...

Maybe I inherited my father's gift and am a salesman.  (He, among other things, ran a grocery store in the 50s and then became a life insurance salesman, which he practiced as a good and honorable calling.)  Or maybe--again, as he was--I may be a born teacher.  I love to add to a conversation, help people find stuff they need, invite them to life-long learning, encouraging them to read and think and talk and care.  So I like to connect the dots.  I can hardly listen to a sermon or read a book or essay and not think---"Oooh, she ought to read..." or "Oh, man, I bet he'd love to know about...." or, sometimes, if I'm in a cranky mood, "Well, they wouldn't say that if they had just read..."

After the loud and widespread debates about the Rob Bell Love Waits book I felt like I should ramble on about a batch of stuff and found myself citing titles, referring to other books, and bringing other authors into the mix, sometimes authors who may not enjoy being found on the same list. (In our store on the new book display we have Bell right next to a new John Piper, in fact.)  Sometimes, as in the fifth and final BookNotes column about Bell, I list books that are exactly pertinent--- other books on the questions of hell, annihilationism, everlasting life and so forth. I hope that serves as a good resource of various titles in this area.   (Yesterday, I got a lovely phone call from the notable Dr. Edward Fudge, whose work on annihilation in the Bible is important, formidable, and respected even by his opponents. The first edition of The Fire That Consumes, by the way, had a forward by F.F. Bruce; an updated, third edition will come out later in the spring.  He told me that expanded edition he will interact with 17 critics and their views and will carry a forward by Richard Bauckman; we'll be sure to tell about it later.)

This list, though, is different. Not all of the books that come to mind have direct application or specific connections.  Maybe I'm a bit too stream of consciousness or to profligate with my dot-connecting.  Still, I trust that the Spirit is at work--I regularly pray that it is so---and the titles that come to mind seem like a grace-filled serendipity.

So, here are a handful of random, miscellaneous titles that seem somehow distant cousins to the posts lately.  Maybe some of these will inspire you to dig a bit more deeply or tunnel over a bit to a near-by parallel topic.  Enjoy.

DB_Will_I_See_My_Dog_In_Heaven.jpgWill I See My Dog in Heaven?  Jack Wintz (Paraclete) $14.99  You know that people ask this, that you have wondered, and if our preaching about the redemption of the whole cosmos, Christ's healing power to forgive and redeem and restore the creation is even close to being true, the role of animals in the New Earth is a good one. (And, the matter is simply sidelined by the dumb question of whether animals have souls or not, as if that is all that heaven entails, souls. Some who commented against my admittedly too brief tirade against Plato may be correct that the ancient teacher was smart.  And maybe it isn't Platonism that wants to keep animals away from God.  But this is a very common and practical application of my concern about dualism.) This is written by a pet-loving Franciscan and the editor of St. Anthony Messenger.  Friar Jack lives in Cincinnati.  This is a lovely little book.  As a gift for those in sorrow over the loss of an animal friend, they did two gift book editions, one for dog lovers and one for cat lovers.   For what it's worth, we have a nice selection of inspiring pet-related gift books, a few on mourning the loss of a pet, and some heady stuff on a theology of animals.  (For those that care, we've had a Newf, and now a Bijon Frise, and a python named Sid Vicious.)

pure-pleasure.jpgPure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad About Feeling Good?  Gary Thomas (Zondervan) $14.99  I love books that are meaty, thoughtful, ecumenical, and easy to read.  Thomas fills the bill with his wonderfully serious evangelical vision, his insights about the interior life.  Read anything he write!  This was a touch surprising when I heard it was coming, yet makes good sense and is very nicely done, very thorough and useful.  I admit that I am challenged by it--to live into it, that is, even though I agree with it all.  In last weeks' posts I referred to the way neo-Platonism deformed our view of creation and how Gnosticism taught us to devalue the things of Earth.  We aren't suppose to like this world much and God, or so the hymn goes, draws our sight towards Him and away from creation.  This book on pleasure is a mighty antidote to this commonplace problem.   As Dr. David Jeremiah says in his rave blurb, in saying how this book helps us understand the John 10:10 abundant life, "And here is the good news: it is not life after death, but life after birth!"  I think he should have said "rebirth" but you get the point.  I really recommend this and am sure it will make you think.  And, I bet, if you like to read at all, you will really enjoy it.  Bookish pleasure.  Yay.

promise-of-despair.jpgThe Promise of Despair: The Way of the Cross as The Way of the Church  Andrew Root (Abingdon) $18.00  When I used the phrase "living theology" in one of my Bell posts, I had forgotten that that is the name of a series of books edited by Tony Jones and the emergent village.  There are about five so far in the set and they are all good. (I have highlighted before The Community of Atonement by Scot McKnight which offers an excellent survey of various views of the atonement and invites us into a community that understands, proclaims, lives and struggles with the implications of them all!)  So talking together about doctrine, living into it and reformulating old truths in new ways, is a fine project, and this series is one example of how it sometimes get done.  This book, by a professor at Luther Seminary, is exceptional.

In it, Root invites us to realize that we need not be (dare not be) stoics--those darn Greeks again!---and that there is gospel hope for those struggling with death and despair in their many forms.  Who doesn't have broken relationships, sadness about the state of the world, frustrations about the meaning of our faith in our contemporary context?  This is serious stuff, insisting that God shares our pain, that Christ's passion is deeply relevant, and that our darkness, while real, can be understood in helpful spiritual ways. And, that we are a community, in this, being church in the deepest way.   It is really creatively written, too, with some wit and verve.  Provocative and very important. 

holinessgod-sproul.jpgThe Holiness of God  R.C. Sproul  (Tyndale) $13.99  This is one of the most influential books for me in my journey and while I sometimes took exception with Sproul's views (ahh, how young and foolish I was, to argue with the rigorously Reformed theologian) I was decisively influenced.  These lectures taught me that in Hebrew they didn't yet have italics of exclamation points so to underscore the importance of something it was just repeated.  A deep pit was called a pit pit.  Christ used this teaching tool by saying Verily Verily.  Only once does an attribute of God get lifted to the third power: Holy. Holy. Holy.  This is a life-changing teaching and I am not alone in naming it as one of the most important books of our generation.  If he hasn't, I wish Rob Bell would read it.

Holy Holy Holy: Proclaiming the Perfections of God  edited by R.C. Sproul (Reformation Trust) $18.00  RT is a publishing ministry of Ligonier and they publish classy hardbacks of serious Reformed thinking, by some of the best leaders in this conservative theological tradition.  These were first offered as talks given at the 2009 Ligonier Ministries National Conference and includes excellent messages on the importance, relevance and application of the holiness of God, how it has been obscured and why it central for Biblical religion.  And what it means for us.  Chapters by Thabiti Anyabwile, Alister Begg, D.A. Carson, Sinclair Ferguson, Robert Godfrey, Sproul and others. 

Lectures on Calvinism Abraham Kuyper (Eerdmans) $16.00  I often say I am mostly aabraham_kuyper.jpg Kuyperian, drawing on the powerful themes of these lectures delivered famously at Princeton Seminary in 1898.  Kuyper makes the case that Calvinism ought not be reduced to merely systematic theology, but that the themes of the sovereign reign of God through Christ must be worked out in all spheres of life.  Instead of fixating on typical doctrine, let alone arcane battles about the fine-points of that doctrine, let's explore the implications of our belief in God for politics, economics, art, science, commerce and the like.  Few theologians have as much experience as pastor and social reformer, professor and parliamentarian, Prime Minister and beloved reporter of his world travels.  A bit dry and deep for me sometimes, but this is a true classic.

Four Views on Divine Providence series edited by Stanley Gundry (Zondervan) $19.99  I mentioned this "Counterpoints" series as a commendable way to study and learn about different views and that they have them on more than a dozen topics.  This is a brand new one and raises this huge question about God's rule over the world, one of the key questions as we reflect on the heartache of theodicy.  Four evangelical authors are included and they each respond to the main chapter of the other three.  Included are views that they describe as "God Causes All Things" "God Directs All Things" "God Controls by Liberating" and "God Limits His Control"  This not only is an example of meaty theological and Bible discourse but, of course, it is immensely significant for our prayers and praise, our confidence and doubts and how we talk about grief with others.  Highly recommended, even if it may be that no one is fully right. 

Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Churchrediscoveringchurchfathers.jpg  Michael A.G. Haykin (Crossway) $16.99  Rob Bell noted that some of the earliest church fathers grappled with what some now call a Christian universalism.  Others rightly retorted that they may have, and they were roundly criticized for it.  Who were the often-cited church fathers? We have a handful of books old and new, complex and basic, and this new one stands out as one that is said to be wonderfully written and quite interesting.  Paul Hartog of Faith Baptist Theological Seminary says, "This gem of a study sparkles with polished clarity.  Haykin has skillfully unearthed buried treasures among early church leaders.  As an experienced guide, he has drawn from his own personal journey and decades of scholarly research."  Never heard of the patristics?  Wondering how those early guys might be understood for those of us who desire to be Biblically-faithful in the 21st century.  This is a very user-friendly and helpful place to start.

Tmelody-of-faith.JPGhe Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key Vigen Guroian (Eerdmans) $14.00  Guroian is a contemporary orthodox lay theologian and a writer of wonderful clarity and grace. We just adored his two books on liturgical gardening (Inheriting Paradise and The Fragrance of God) and his robust and kindly ways are very attractive to me.  Here he does theology---living, to be sure, but yet deeply ancient---using the metaphor of music.  As it says on the back, "In the Orthodox Christian faith, the elements of liturgy, scriptures, hymnody, and iconography are the instruments or "voices" of a melody of faith."  Orthodoxy clearly has a dogmatic foundation of a rich faith, and he explores their multi-faceted expression in six "movements."  A lovely idea.  As Stanley Hauerwas notes of it, "Guroian helps the reader understand, see, and sing the Christian mysteries, for Creation is a Trinitarian love song that envelops us all." 

Image.ashx.jpgLove as a Way of Life: Seven Keys to Transforming Every Aspect of Your Life  Gary Chapman (Waterbrook) $13.95  We used to use the phrase "love wins" when exploring the power of nonviolent direct action to protest war and nuclear power in the 70s.  Going to jail like the civil right marchers, loving the cops who'd stomp us and the judges who'd mock us was truly part of the vision of the power of Love, the essential hope that good can overcome evil (just like the Bible specifically says) Christian discipleship as resistance to the principalities and powers.  Radical writers like Jim Douglas and Dan Berrigan became long-distance mentors and we insisted on what Gene Sharp called The Power of Love, not to be confused with a song by Huey Lewis and the News. 

The subtitle of this wonderful, readable Gary Chapman book isn't completely right, as it doesn't cover "every aspect" (it is not, shall we say, Kuyperian.)  However, this does take us a good long way, and for all our talk about love, we don't really do it very well, in personal or public affairs (or am I the only one?)  Chapman became justly famous for The Five Love Languages, a book that is wise and useful if perhaps a tad overstated.  This has life stories, personal assessment tools, practical exercises and a ton of inspiration for unlocking the power of authentic love.  Good questions for book clubs, adult classes or small groups.  Would that we'd apply even a portion of this---we'd change the world, or our little corner of it.  Nice.

Humility: The Journey Toward Holiness  Andrew Murray (Bethany) $7.99  This little book by14535569.JPG the famed 19th century evangelist is a rich and thoughtful read, good for the soul, and helpful for our ruminations and behaviors these days.  Murray, of course, would not have cared for the liberal, progressive or emergent wing of the church these days, but, if this book is any indication, his firm rebukes would have been offered with gentleness and a lack of arrogance.  This is good Bible teaching and Christian living instruction that we truly need, even if the language is a bit arcane.  Or, maybe that is good, helping us slow down and pay attention and ponder the meaning.

Ha--is it pompous of me to say so?  I hope not!  Still, we think it is to be highly recommended.

Christ Among the Dragons: Finding Our Way Through Cultural Challenges  JamesChrist among the dragons.jpg Emery White (IVP) $17.00  I said a month ago that White was one of my favorite speakers at the CCOs Jubilee conference and that his passion, great speaking style, knowledge about the world and Biblical fidelity was just spectacular.  This book should not be ignored---he is really talking about so much of the stuff I alluded to, without going into the details, but living into a broad vision of culturally engaged wholistic discipleship, making a difference, being both generous and non-compromising.   I like a chapter called "The World Without Us: Renewing Culture with the True, the Good and the Beautiful."  Another chapter is on evangelism, making a clear case that it is an act of love.  There are dragons--what he names as "the loss of absolutes in a wiki world" and he makes a passionate plea for orthodoxy. "The dogma is in the drama" you know.

Christ-honoring reformation for the common good is one of the large challenges of our time. And we need to live this out in ways that both the more liberal and the more conservative wings of the church haven't quite gotten right.  How did we get into the mess we're in?  (Well, I already told you that if you read my long essays, but White offers some other insights, well written and true.)  I so enjoyed this, appreciate the few illustrations and art pieces, and am glad for his dramatic visions and sensible evangelical summons.  There are a few chapters that seem very germane to the Bell conversations including some stuff on the unity within the church, a great chapter on "polarizations" as "misplaced missional energy, and a good teaching on the church as our mother: holy, catholic, apostolic.  Right on!

Large.9780732404307.jpgA Gentler God: Breaking Free of the Almighty in the Company of the Human Jesus  Doug Frank (Albatross) $25.00  Well, you can see the (troublesome) way this author pits the humanness of Jesus with the nature of God, so I smell something wrong.  Yet, this line of reasoning simply must be at least considered if we are to understand our Lord Jesus. And at 475+ pages (in an easy-on-the-eyes font) and lots of footnotes (ranging from poets to philosophers, Bible scholars to historians) this is a large contribution.  Actually, the portions that I read are as much about evangelicalism and how we are or are not welcoming, how we've talked about the character of God and the nature of faith,  than they are the Scriptures.  As I said last week, the conversation about the Bell book, especially within evangelical circles, is as revealing as the book itself. How we get at these theological quandaries (and how we handle disagreement, various interpretations, and the anxiety of contested truth) is itself part of the "living theology" process.  Brian McLaren notes that this is "the best and deepest diagnosis of what's wrong with American evangelicalism I've ever read...This book will stay with me for a long time"  Historian Randall Balmer writes, "A wonderful, troubling book that offers a gospel for the disenchanted, for whom the church is just another dead building and God a nagging presence of a painful absence."  He notes that "No one has shaped my understanding of the gospel more profoundly over the years than Doug Frank."

Novelist David James Duncan, who is not known for endorsing Christian books, writes that it is "a labor of love...Welcome to the masterwork of a huge-hearted, evangelical son."  A blurb from the author of two of my all time favorite novels does not make it correct.  But it matters, if a sensitive and passionate author/activist like Duncan cares about it.  And, Rob Bell has an endorsement of it, naming it as a rare book that he loves.  So it gives you insight into Bell, at least. 

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March 29, 2011

"Pick up and read." Absolutely fantastic books about books.

I am thrilled to tell you about two things, and then to share a few really remarkable books.  This is pretty vital stuff for us---on the joys of reading, the call to think seriously (and freely) and to relate essential core convictions of the faith to every thing we read and think.  We cover that last part a lot, here, the need for a Biblically-rooted Christian mind.

Reading, as I often say, is a spiritual discipline, so learning about how to learn, reading about reading, is helpful.  And if you love books and bookstores, such reading can bring you much pleasure.  So, some books about books and the joys and hurdles of reading in our hot-wired age.  I have been really moved by a handful of titles which I must commend to you.

But first, news:  I am very glad to share that I am speaking at a conference in Dallas this weekend hosted by David Naugle, of the honors college at Dallas Baptist University.  David is  a man I admire, whose two books I love (each in different ways--Worldview: The History of a Concept and Reordered Loves, Reordered Lives.)  If you are curious, or want to pray for me in an informed way, check out this overview of the Paidieia conference.  You can see my three keynote talks, all around the famous Latin phrase that Augustine heard Tolle Legge, or Pick Up and Read.  I shall make a case with stories, Scripture and lots of book quotes, that we should care about books and reading because people matter (and sharing books is an act of love), because words matter, and because ideas matter.  We will celebrate reading, the book, and maybe good bookstores and libraries, a bit, too.

And, I'll get to hear the New Agrarians (Pierce Pettis, Kate Campbell and Tom Kimmel, who once quipped they are like a redneck Peter Paul and Mary.)  I'll be in the presence of some of the finest lyricists around---you can't imagine how nervous I am.

In the middle of my preparations for the Texas event, praying and pondering and reading on the run about this looming topic, why reading still matters and the future of the book, I was asked to write a short blog piece for the prestigious The High Calling website.  You should get their stuff---and join in their virtual community.  Good writers and thoughtful folk gather there to reflect on how faith relates to all of life, especially the work-world.  It is hosted by the Laity Lodge, a good group, also in Texas.  

Please check out my column there which they titled Stylelogo.jpg Matters, where I write about the first book that really captured me as a youth and why I didn't tear it up.  I write about how style matters, how different folks want different sorts of things from books, but we all, usually, use both sides of our brains---we want content and lovely prose, truth, well told.  I mention the important (heady) book, now out in paperback, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain (Harper; $14.99), by Tufts University developmental psychologist, dyslexia expert, and historian of language, Maryanne Wolf,  which you ought to know about.  I hope you enjoy my little essay---I'm happy with how it turned out.  If you click on it now, be sure to come back.

Six great books I've recently read about books and reading.  I've been up late lately, that is for sure. And it was worth it.  I am so, so excited about each.

carr-the-shallows.jpgThe Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains  Nicholas Carr (Norton) $26.95  Stop the presses!  I've always wanted to shout that and need to mean it.  I was way wrong.  This was one of the top books of 2010, but I hadn't read it when I did my best of list so it didn't make my cut. I really was remiss in not awarding it.  Why hadn't I gotten around to reading it?  What was I thinking?  Now, I want to name it as one of the best books in years.  I guess I thought--yeah, yeah, internet is bad, Web 2.0 is dumbing us all down, shimmering pixels re-wire the brain.  Got it. I knew about the famous piece Carr wrote "Is Google Making us Stupid?" in a 2008 The Atlantic Monthly.  I had no idea---no idea!--- how engaging and powerful and insightful and beautiful and provocative and important this was. I apologize to my readers: this should have been on the top of the list.  It is a must read.  And if you are following me, here in cyberspace, distracted by hyperlinks and pop-ups videos and all manner of neurological shenanigans, maybe you and I need it more than others.  Really.  (And did you notice I drop it into my call for civility in the Rob Bell debate?  Somehow, this erosion of clear-headed thinking may have lessened our capacity for calm, ratcheting up the volumes in the culture wars.  Can deep reading help?  Can love of literature make a difference?  Can we be engaged readers if our temperaments and synapses are firing in new ways?)  This major book is not coming out in paperback soon, so spring for it now before your brain cells erode even more.
 

6a00d8341cbf9a53ef0148c87ecb95970c-200wi.jpgThe Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading In An Electronic Age  Sven Birkerts (Faber & Faber) $16.00
This is one of my all time favorite books, and I am reading portions for a third time.  Birkerts' call to deep reading, his memoiristic reflections about loving books (and working in a bookstore) and his fears about "electronic" culture all are so very interesting, very compelling, evoking all kinds of thoughts, memories and feelings.  He's a serious reader, of course, and he names a lot of authors and books, but his main concern is whether this style of engaging the world through some consensus about the importance of careful reading can endure amidst the fast-paced and hot-wired world of the Net. (And all this before facebook and twitter and the 2.0 interactive stuff--how very prescient!) Very elegantly written. The new preface and final coda (written when the second edition came out in 2006) are worth the price of the book.  Wise, thoughtful, mature and literate.  (And how about that mouse as a book-marker on the cover?  Nice touch, eh?)


reading lolita.jpgReading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books  Axar Nafisi (Random House) $16.95  How does reading Western literature, from Nabokov to Fitzgerald, effect a small group of Muslim women meeting in the author's Iranian home?  As one rave reviewer put it, this "reminds us why we read in the first place."  The New Republic called it "anguished and glorious" and Margaret Atwood said of it, "Stunning...a literary life raft on Iran's fundamentalist sea.  All readers should read it."  Not only does she talk about reading great literature, and how it effects us, she portrays the indignities--and worse!---of the repressive regime.  Nafisi comes from hundreds of years and over a dozen generations of scholars and her father was for a short time the mayor of Tehran.  (He was imprisoned by the Ayatollah K.)   Her own role in leftist revolution is explained and her years as a college professor became harrowing.  Her descriptions of the jockeying for power between various factions of the Leninist left and the  several sorts of radical Islamists is striking (and helpful for those who aren't aware of these groupings within the revolution.  And it got ugly---people disappearing for the smallest infractions, professors being executed, books being banned, bookstores burned.  The chapter where she has a mock trial putting Gatsby on the stand made my draw drop in near disbelief.

I have to note, here, by the way, that although the fascists there---radical leftists or radical religionists---are not like those who smugly call me "heretic" on the internet because I suggested people at least appreciate some of Rob Bell, or read him earnestly for yourself, the spirit of book banning, of discouraging intellectual curiosity, of moralistic judgmentalism, is too similar not to be named.  I get word from friends that people are speaking dishonestly about BookNotes, and while I do not fear, really, Ms Nafisi's brave commitments to teach stuff that could get her killed brought a large lump to my throat and a bit of resolve to my work to encourage thoughtful engagement and civil discourse, even regarding books with which we disagree.  This book couldn't be more timely for me to read and if you haven't read it, you really should consider it.  I'm almost done and am very moved by it.

(By the way, I have never read Lolita, and I guess I thought it glorified the awful child molester.  This author makes the obvious connection that the women in this repressive country are much like Dolly (her real name in the novel) and they must find ways to subvert the sexual and political violence against them.  Powerful, urgent, stuff, well told. The deckled pages and french-fold cover makes this a very lovely book to hold, for which I am grateful.

wordbook.jpgThe Word: Black Writers Talk About the Transformative Power of Reading and Writing  edited by Marita Golden (Broadway) $16.99  I simply could not stop reading these excellent interview with African-American authors, about their earliest memories of reading, their favorite books, their writing habits and how the traditions of black intellectual life was shaped in the 20th century.  It is stunning to think of Nobel Prize winning historians, say, whose own parents could not read or write.  The struggle for blacks to get library cards, the lack of awareness, for some, that there were books by people of color, the up-hill struggle to learn in less than easy situations.  (Nathan McCall's awareness of literature, and black literature especially, happened in prison.)  These good interviews are just fascinating, every one of them, and we get to listen in.  Kudos to Golden for seeking out the right folks, and asking them the right questions.  I believe any and everyone would benefit from being inspired by these stories.  It reminds us of a whole lot of very important stuff, about learning, gaining one's own voice, the cost of serious reading, and how to value the tools, and develop the habits of being a life-long learner.  Love it!

27276422.JPGHow to Read Novels Like a Professor: A Journey of the World's Favorite Literary Form  Thomas C. Foster (Harper) $13.99  I have been meaning to read this, and will certainly now read his earlier one, How To Read Literature Like a Professor.  I loved this---almost every chapter was a sheer delight, fun and witty and learned.  My, my, this guy knows his novels.  He has chapters on voice, viewpoint, character development, theme, even on on chapters (he likes them, especially with names, not just numbers.)  He explains the differences in Victorian writers (Charles Dickens, say) and the weirdo modernists (well, that is my word, not his, but he does note that Joyce's Finnegan's Wake may be the hardest book ever to follow!  And Faulkner?  Whew!)  Foster's book does not describe many very new writers, but he is a great teacher and his verve and insight is here in buckets.  My summer reading list is larger now, and I'm going to have to get to some of those classics.   I've never had such fun reading lit crit. 

ulin-book.jpgThe Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time  David Ulin (Sasquatch Books) $12.95  I've commented on this short, dense, and richly written book before.  It starts out when this literary critic's son says that nobody reads anymore, that he can't stand The Great Gatsby which he is studying in school.  Them's fightin' words to the man who just lost his job as editor of the prestigious Los Angeles Times Book Review (which was shut down---another casualty of the internet culture and "the shallows" of our times.)  So he ruminates on books he loves, his earliest obsessions with the printed page, authors he loves (and there are plenty) and what happens when we are lost in books.  In this "distracted age" Ulin wonders if that can even happen any more.  What a good, if serious, bit of memoir, reflection and criticism.  A small-sized hardback that is great to hold, nice to read, important to slowly, slowly, consider.


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