About March 2013

This page contains all entries posted to Hearts & Minds Books in March 2013. They are listed from oldest to newest.

February 2013 is the previous archive.

April 2013 is the next archive.

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March 2013 Archives

March 7, 2013

BOOKS OFFERED TO A CLERGY GATHERING -- 20% OFF, TOO.

I mentioned on Facebook the other day that I was speaking to a group of clergy, doing a little informal show and tell for their ministerium meeting, offering some new books that I thought they might appreciate.    Which led another friend to ask what books I was sharing at that little gig.

I thought you'd like to hear about some of the ones I cited, but don't forget: when I do these sorts of things I really try to find books that are both theologically and spiritually helpful and relevant to the particular group I'm working with.  Sometimes I slip in some odd-ball stuff -- conservative Reformed theology for liberal UCC folks or progressive social justice manifestos for straight-laced conservatives, meaty Christian philosophy for kindly Sunday school teachers, old-fashioned, un-hip Bible commentaries for energetic and creative college kids.  Like to keep folks on their toes, you know.

But, still, curve-balls notwithstanding, this jam-packed hour show and tell, with me rambling about an author I like or reading a moving few pages from a memoir or two, was designed for my small town, small church, very mainline pastors.  I can't list everything I mentioned (let alone everything I took to display.) But here are a few I thought you should know about. These are each really, really good.  Enjoy.

As often is the case here at Hearts & Minds BookNotes, we show the regular retail price.  We will deduct then discount -- just click on the order form link below, and tell us what you want
!


A
any day a beautiful change.jpgny Day A Beautiful Change: A Story of Faith and Family  Katherine Willis Pershey (Chalice) $14.99  I read a few pages of this to the group and wanted to just wow them with how great this prose is, how beautifully rendered some of it is, what a great, great memoir this is.  And to thereby help them discover how it is an important book -- fun and urgent; not a bad combo.  Not everyone appreciates memoir as Beth and I do, so I told them that I think wise pastors would read a lot of this sort of thing, learning how self-aware people construe their lives, how people tell their stories, how they see God's hand in the stuff of the unfolding of a life.  I always offer memoir to clergy, and this is absolutely my favorite one so far this year; I speculated that it is going to be hard to top -- it is that good. And it is about a fellow clergy person.  Older pastors might enjoy hearing how a younger one sees her work.  Men should certainly consider how their female colleagues are weaving together their callings as mothers and ministers. It gives a great glimpse into the calling and lived experiences of parents.  So, I recommended this boldly for all those reasons. And I do so now, with you.

Mostly, though, I just loved reading it. I took pleasure in the reading.  I was really moved by it. For starters, she had me, as they say, from the title alone. It is a line from a great Innocence Mission song. Older mainline clergy probably don't care about cool and artful bands like Over the Rhine, let alone The Innocence Mission, but I bet some BookNotes readers will dig that.  This young Disciples of Christ clergy woman must have been a young romantic from the start, and was, we find out, quite a poet.  Her use of that song lyric in the remarkably moving forward struck me as a very nice touch.

The short version of this tender story is that Pershey is a thoughtful young pastor in a small older church, and she narrates her being pregnant and accepted in that ordinary little parish.  Below the surface is heavy stuff about pain and heartbreak, hurt and healing, hard times and good times, too, understood profoundly as unfolding under the merciful presence of a loving God.  Yes, this is a spiritually rewarding book, about God and grace and goodness.

But, as Lillian Daniels notes of it, Pershey "writes beautifully about hard things." And it is "sanctimony-free."  That is for sure; it is more than a little snarky and at times, sometimes a little crass, and it is down-right hilarious.  So it sure isn't sanctimonious.

But what it is about?  More concretely,  she tells of the nitty-gritty, daily life of a struggling young married woman whose wonderful husband is clever, fun, a scholar, and a recovery alcoholic.

And she tells of the nitty-gritty of daily life as a struggling young mother.

Who is a pastor and preacher.

And when I say nitty-gritty, I mean to say that she writes vividly about about birth plans gone south -- how many spiritual memoirs do you know that talk about episiotomies? -- about maddeningly bad pediatricians, and, quite vividly, about the pain and joys of breast feeding?  And there are heinie jokes -- well, at least she uses the word once. And there are beautifully told episodes about dear Juliette, her beloved first daughter. Yep, this is a real-world book about motherhood, and it nearly had this old dad in tears at times. She writes eloquently, with clarity and humor, about the quandaries of making one's way in the world with children, combating pressures from the stupid consumerist culture and the traditional values crowd, wanting to be beyond all that, wanting to parent in sane ways that are good and beautiful and true. She isfamily.jpg frank, touching, and wise.

I cannot tell you how we loved this stuff, retelling about the kinda crunchy baby-rearing and child-raising and marriage working, and sermon writing and pastoral care-giving, all while a part of a old-school mainline Protestant congregation in sunny Southern California. A region which she grew to hate, not incidentally, the freeways and hectic lifestyle.  Part of the story, in fact, is her moving from a congregation that loved her well, and whom she loved back, as she responded to a new call, taking a church back in her beloved mid-West.

Jason Byassee (who himself wrote a killer book about some of this context of a small church called The Gifts of a Small Church) says "I expect a good memoir to be wise and funny.  A good pastoral memoir should bear witness to God's goodness.... The glory of this one, in particular, is its incarnationally shaped bodiliness. We have a new writer to whom we must pay attention."

And, I like what Carol Howard Merritt (herself a young mom and mainline pastor) said: Katherine Willis Pershey walks alongside all of us who delight in Eat, Pray, Love, but yearn for a reflection on a different sort of path. With theological depth and insight, Pershey struggles with the passions of life, the heartbreaks of relationship, the worries of parenting, and the truths of vocation. Through all the twists and turns of her emerging marriage, ministry, and motherhood, she leads us to glimpses of reconciliation and wholeness."

This thin book is the second in a series called The Young Clergy Woman Project (TYCWP) which features writings from a young adult clergy women.  The first was the fabulous Living the Sabbath in the Suburbs: A Family's Experiment with Holy Time by MaryAnn McKibben-Dana (Chalice Press; $19.99.)

Ddoes-this-church-make-me-look-fat.jpgoes This Church Make Me Look Fat: A Mennonite Finds Faith, Meets Mr. Right, and Solves Her Lady Problems Rhoda Janzen (Grand Central Publishing) $24.99  I raved about this before, told these pastors that I had listed it on our Best of 2012 list -- you have a book review blog!? argggh -- and exclaimed that it was one of the most fun books Beth and I read all year last year.  Hope you recall our yapping about it before, as it has been fun to describe. What other book combines discussions of Anabaptists and Pentecostals, talks candidly about life as a Christian college professor in a fairly liberal setting? Talks about prayer and sex and guns and fashion?  This Janzen gal gets around, making this as painless (except for the pain in your side from laughing so much) a way of being ecumenical as you're going to find.  You will learn something, I am sure, as Ms Janzen surely did.

This new memoir is the sequel to the beloved, mischievously funny Mennonite in a Little Black Dress.  It is a love story, a coming-to-deeper-faith story, a wacky journey into an open-minded embrace of a new faith tradition, and a cancer survival tale.  This book will make you howl, and everybody deserves some astute, humorous, snarky writing, just for the fun of it.  And, I believe, there is much, much wisdom here, and we should all be attentive to the stuff Janzen experiences. This is a wonderful memoir, energetic, clever, and amazingly well crafted. How does she think to use words like this, to create sentences and paragraphs and pages like this? She has the gift and aspiring writers could learn much from her tales.  Preachers, too.

Tgod of the mundane.jpghe God of the Mundane: Reflections on Ordinary Life for Ordinary People Matthew B. Redmond (Kalas Press) $12.95  Okay, here we go again, sort of a memoir, sort of a collection of essays, sort of a journey to a new, more healthy way of life, sort of a stellar rumination on the essence of a grace-filled Christian life. Again, this is very well written, funny, but deadly serious, too.  Matt Redmond offers a great set of essays about ordinary life, lived out with humility and quiet contentment.  That is, he helps us come to realize that we don't have to ramp up our overly zealous passions for Jesus. We don't have to overdo the zippy, flashy stuff for God.  God wants us to be human, after all.  We can have permission to be, well, mundane. 

This is a book, the publisher tells us, "about pastors, plumbers, dental hygienists, and stay-at-home moms.  It finds grace and mercy in chicken fingers, smiles from strangers, and classic films."  And, I might add, in the songs of Bruce Springsteen.  Not every pastor writing these days says he was inspired by Darkness on the Edge of Town.

Redmond is mature theologically (he has written for the Gospel Coalition.) He is writerly -- he even quotes Updike!  And, gladly, he knows that God is for us, is with us, and that the risen Christ sanctifies the seemingly mundane, making holy the daily grind, as His redemptive work trickles into all areas of life.

This short set of well-written pieces does not display a shallow sort of pop spirituality, though, or take shortcuts, offering a cheap approach to the complexities of daily life East of Eden.  He grapples with the hard stuff, curious about how to practice the presence of God in a fallen world.  Yes, there are hardships, and yes (of course) we are at times called to respond with vigor and courage, taking up the cost of discipleship. 

But the God of creation and recreation has made room for us all. We do not all have to be superheros for the Kingdom.  We can deal with the drudgery of the daily, and we can rejoice in the mundane. (Redmond opens the book with a rumination on his boring and undramatic work as a bank teller.)  This is a quiet little book about ordinary life and ordinary people with ordinary tasks. Some might even think of it as an anti- "Christian book" book. As it says on the witty cover design that brings to mind an old-time circus-show poster or handbill,  "Ladies and Gentleman, we are pleased to present...A breathtaking Escape from the Fantastical." Ha.  This is quite counter to the huffing and puffing of so much "do more for God" exhortations being published these days. And certainly different than the promises of fantastical spiritual ecstasy or blessing found in some popular quarters.

The God of the Mundane is a book you should read -- I wish more pastors knew how to articulate this gracious approach to ordinary life and to help us ponder these themes. I think, at its heart, this is a very profound, distinctively Christian insight. We do glory in the creatureliness of daily living.  Learning how to do that, in kindness, in quietness, in faith, hope and love, and good humor, too; that is an extraordinary calling.  Redmond can help.

WWhen-Spiritual-But-Not-Religious-199x300.jpghen Spiritual But Religious Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church  Lillian Daniel (Jericho Books) $19.99  Lillian is a pastor in the same denomination as my little clergy gathering the other day, so I had to remind them of her stature in their circles, well deserved, not least for her truly spectacular writing, her amazing wit, her strong word-play, and, now, this must-read, contender for 2013 Book of the Year. I don't know if this is a direct response to the hand-wringing about the state of the ordinary church these days, and in some ways I think it could be read in tandem with the heavier, but also enjoyable, Christianity After Religion by Diana Butler Bass (HarperOne -- just now out in paperback for $14.99!)  Rev. Daniel says, to those about to embrace the "spiritual but not religious" schtick, firmly and with a high degree of holy snark, not so fast, buster.  Well, she puts it better than that, and the first long chapter dissecting the culturally comfortable silliness of those who avoid church to  worship God in nature or read the Sunday Times, is about the best thing I've yet read on this thorny batter of post-Christian culture. She nails it, and brings a huge smile as she invites us to expect more from true religion and the truly spiritual.  She is a moderately liberal mainline Protestant but has no tolerance for what passes for insight from this gang who condescendingly rejects Christian claims and ordinary faith communities -- for finding God in rainbows? Give us a break.

As it ends up, ordinary faith communities are where it's at, and she makes the quirks and strains, commitments and stories, of typical churches sound down right attractive.  Yes, she shows us how to find God everywhere, including outside the church.  She is a heck of a writer, on par with, say Barbara Brown Taylor, if a bit more edgy and light-hearted. So she is an ideal person to point us to the light, to gospel truths, to good news, understated and real.  And some of that Light -- yep! -- can be found in mixed up, messed up churches. Churches that knit prayer shawls and know how to offer "honest prayers."  I love this kind of stuff, and you will too!

Interestingly, though, the book isn't mostly about congregational life, although some of her stories about her work in church are great.  Many of the pieces are, in fact, about finding God outside the confines of the local congregation, in the world at large.  This book holds together well, but it could be understood as a collection of essays, grouped by theme. 

I loved this book -- from the gut-wrenching chapter about speaking in Sing Sing prison to the hilarious confession about her yoga class -- and am on a mission to tell folks about it.  By the way, if you are not fond of mainline denominational church traditions, and you don't know her from the Christian Century, say (or her earlier co-authored book on the life of pastors on Eerdmans or the one on practices of giving testimony published by Pilgrim Press) this would be a good time to reach across that isle, take a deep breath, and read a writer from the UCC.  UCC pastors read evangelicals and Catholics (at least the ones that allow me to sell 'em books do) so you, proper, conservative, evangelical that you are, should loosen up and enjoy one of the great religion writers from the mainline world.  Agree or not, it will be an enjoyable, helpful read.

I am not the only one extoling the insight and writing of When Spiritual But Religious Is Not Enough.  Here are a few of the many great endorsements:

"This is the wonderful, essential Lillian Daniel at her best-earthy, perceptive, devout, tough-minded, angry and laugh-out-loud funny, all in one. Daniel's easygoing style is just right for revealing her great gift of finding God in the everyday. Sometimes she is biting. Sometimes she is tender and often what she says is stunningly beautiful." Bob Abernethy, Executive Editor, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, PBS

"Here is why I love Lillian Daniel's writing: it is honest; it is funny; and it teaches me about Mary and Martha via a yoga class. The church she describes is the place that has sustained my spiritual life when my own interior sense of God's presence has faltered; and it is the place that, as often as not, is where I am sitting when my sense of God's presence reignites." Lauren F. Winner, author of Girl Meets God and Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis

"You read some things because you have to or need to or ought to. You'll read Lillian Daniel for the pure pleasure of pitch-perfect writing-she has the rare talent of a "natural." Along the way, you'll discover enrichment and insight that you needed and wanted ... Lillian cooks up a delicious and nourishing feast for readers. Don't miss it!" Brian McLaren, author of Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?
 
Rresilient ministry.jpgesilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie (IVP) $17.00  For leaders in parish life, pastors, ministers, clergy folk of all sorts, this is perhaps the best thing I have ever seen that lays out the data on what healthy resilience looks like.  We all know that clergy burn-out and ineffectiveness is at an all time high.  What  does it take to have a fruitful, sane, ministry over the long haul?  What are the dangers and what are the traits needed to counter the troubles?  L. Gregory Jones of Duke calls this important work "wise, insightful, and intensely practical" and you can bet I'll take it to every pastors gathering at which we sell books. It is that good. And that important,.

This book was launched as the first book in a new imprint called IVP Praxis, which will offer titles designed to equip leaders for ministry. It offers key insights gained as the researchers tracked a cohort of ministers for nearly a decade.  I do not know if such longitudinal research has been done to this extent before, but this is huge.  Their method included some qualitative hunches -- they started with pastors who were considered healthy, from healthy churches, whose lives and theological commitments were reputable.  And then they took of, trying to figure out what causes these traits and how these pastors sustained them.  The insights that arose and which were deduced from these extensive transcripts are remarkable.  These are the points pastors and church leaders need if they and their families are going to stay afloat.

By the way, there are tons of fascinating quotes (nicely set apart) of actual pastors interviews that are, some might say, the heart of the book. And there are some really useful appendices, lots of good take-away points, and a splendid bibliography.  These scholars are that put this together are among the best in their field, amazingly knowledgeable and experts in adult learning and the like.

It is really interesting what came to the surface in this research. Resilient, effective pastors truly need to attend to their own interior lives.  Many of the best have spiritual directors.  Also, the best have high social skills (skills and instincts that the research indicates many clergy and leaders should work on.)  Having cross cultural skill is important, having strong boundaries that allow for strong family development is crucial. (Pastors cannot be thriving and effective if they are drained by their own unhealthy family lives.) Some of this is obvious, some a bit surprising, all of it critical to know and apply. Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us... is a gem, and a much-needed one. I bet you know somebody you could give it to.

Christine Pohl of Asbury (who wrote the excellent, essential Making Room and Living Into Community) writes of it, "Highly practical, spiritually substantive, and rich with examples and suggestions, this book offers much needed insight into factors that are crucial for long-term flourishing."

Psychologist and author Diana Langberg says "Isolation, relentless demands and little nurturing result in many ministry leaders abandoning their posts. The authors have exposed much of this to light along with a solid understanding of what is needed for pastors to thrive as faithful servants."  

Sstraining at the oars.pngtraining at the Oars: Case Studies in Pastoral Leadership  H. Dana Fearon III with Gordon Mikoski (Eerdmans) $18.00 I read the first chapter of this well-written and excellently conceived collection of case studies of pastoral quandaries, and I was hooked.  (The grieving parents of a still born baby wanted the deceased child baptized.  The pastor, naturally, suggested this wasn't necessary, nor particularly proper, theologically speaking. As you might guess, the parents were deeply hurt, and, in retrospect, Fearon wondered how he might have handled it better.)  From learning to preach to a particular congregation to vexing matters about boundaries and use of time, from case studies about the proper exercise of power to examples of serving the unexpected needy, this is just loaded with real-world examples of pastoral care perplexities. Yet, these aren't odd-ball curiosities, but the daily stuff of ordinary ministry.  Who hasn't gotten flack for being involved in community affairs? Who hasn't wondered how to better equip and call forth the gifts of the laity? Each of these stories are followed by excellent and thought-provoking questions, perfect for ministerium groups, or for anyone who wants to talk through pastoral ethics or deepen the theological foundation for determining wise moves of ministry.

Rev. Fearon is pastor emeritus of the Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, NJ, and Dr. Mikoski is a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary.  You may know him as the editor of Theology Today.

Lletters-future-church-words-encouragement-prophetic-appeals-chris-lewis-paperback-cover-art.jpgetters to a Future Church: Words of Encouragement and Prophetic Appeals Chris Lewis et al (IVP) $15.00  Wow, this book is a bargain at twice the price, loaded, as it is, with numerous, remarkable chapters by some of our finest writers -- writers who often are not in the same bookstore, let alone the same book!  In what is essentially a collection of letters to the churches -- think of those letters the apostle John wrote to seven churches from his prison in Patmos -- inviting them to ponder what the Spirit might be saying to the churches today.  Lewis' "Epiphaneia Network" asked these questions, and did they ever get some amazing replies.

Here you have Walter Brueggemann, Andy Crouch and Ron Sider, Soong-Chan Rah, Sarah Lance, and Makoto Fujimura. There is a fresh chapter by Peter Rollins.  You get to read the Gospel Coalition blogger Tim Challies and the very different Rachel Held Evans.  Radical critiques come from the likes of David Fitch and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and brilliant ruminations come from many others, from Shane Claiborne to William Willimon to Gardner Taylor.  Holding it together is the tender and yet spunky voice of Janell Anema, who pens a letter from four different vantage points as she recalls her interests and concerns in four stages of her life. Her first one, written to the church from her youth, is called "You Had Me At Hello" and it almost makes me cry in its simple charity and love for God's church.

Dare I say it -- if you care about the voices from some of the best folks writing today, you need to get Letters to a Future Church.  And if you care about what might be considered an "Eight Letter" -- a new letter from the Spirit to the Church in North America, you simply must read and ponder these passionate, insightful, and some, even luminous, pleas -- "words of encouragement and prophetic appeals."

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March 11, 2013

BRAND NEW ROB BELL: What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne) ON SALE - $20.00

It was two years ago that I wrote pages and pages and pages (and pages and more pages) in several long posts (and a short video podcast of me preaching about it a bit.) The first few were merely preface to my eventual ruminations on the controversial Rob Bell book Love Wins (now out in paperback, HarperOne; $14.99.)  After a column or two about civility and not complaining about books one hasn't read, I eventually told what I appreciated and what I found troublesome about Rob's book.  I listed some others, too, that would be helpful if one were studying the question of hell -- some that went further in the direction he was apparently heading, and some that were quite critical, early volumes written in response to Love Wins.  Anyway, it was interesting to see the diversity of customers we have, some who felt like I was too wordy, some that said my rambling reflections themselves should have been published as an ebook, claiming it was the best thing they read about what somebody called Bellapalloza.  I think I ended up writing more words about the dust-up and book than were actually in the book.  

I am not going to do that again,  although I've still got my concerns about the civility matter.

I wanted to slyly call this part "What We Talk About When We Talk About What We Talk About When We Talk About God."  Funny, huh? Okay, maybe not. But you read it here first, though, since somebody surely is going to pull that one.
WWTAWWTAGbanner41.jpg

I do have a few preliminary things to say but first I am glad to announce that we've got the new Rob Bell book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne; regularly $25.99) offered at an introductory sale price of $20.00. You can order it by clicking on the order from link, below.

Twhat we talk about cover.jpghis new book (which I have read cover to cover) is really, really interesting and explores a lot of material, although -- given his poetic style and sentences that are set apart like separate paragraphs  -- it can be read nearly in one sitting. We are happy to sell it.  It isn't a perfect book, and there are a few things about which I really wished he would have been just a tad clearer.  There were a couple of pages that bored me (but will surely thrill a science geek.)  One or two phrases, I think, were off-base, or at least could be misconstrued.  But a whole lot was fantastic -- much of it really good, quite helpful, very interesting, and Biblically solid in the things that he is actually teaching about. One early reviewer said it was incoherent, that he couldn't figure out what Bell was saying, and I have no idea why he said that, as the book is mostly quite clear, or so it seemed to me.  So, it is indeed a good book, if at times allusive, even mysterious, and even if it leaves some matters unresolved. (It is about GOD, after all -- what do you expect? Put Him in a box? I think that's been tried, and, in fact, Bell has a few pages on the whole Temple era, the curtain being torn, Jesus saying "I am the temple" and the like No, it will not do to reduce God to a formula, a list of attributes, flatten out the Mystery; no serious theologian or lover of God wants that.)  But before I tell you a bit more about why I commend it and invite you to consider reading it for yourself, a few introductory remarks.

NO BOOK IS PERFECT
No book is perfect. No matter what theological camp you are in, you have your favorite writers who explain things well, or advocate for certain ways of thinking and who offer a contribution to your perspective.  But, of course, none of them, humans that they are, get it fully right, and no author is infallible. So why denounce with such venom those you don't like, as if they have to be impeccable? Every book is flawed. So what? We always recommend books presuming that you know that there are errors, gaps, lapses, and sometimes pretty stupid gaffes and that readers must learn to interact with the printed page with open-minded but critical thinking. Good, friendly discussion among trusted friends is great, and provocative books sometimes make the best conversation partners.  I want books to be stimulating, fruitful, interesting, charming, beautiful, challenging, helpful, but don't expect them to be perfect.  You may want to critique Rob Bell -- and the hollering about this new one has already begun in some quarters, again, based mostly on a promo video -- but do recall that he doesn't suggest that his are the final words.  He is a bit edgy, sort of experimental, and should be read with the proverbial grain of salt.  Some authors, by the way, on the left and right, do not come across so provisionally, and they almost suggest that if you don't agree with them, you are seriously flawed. They want to you take their words as gospel.  And they should get over themselves.  While Bell perhaps isn't the most humble man in publishing today, there is a playfulness to his work that suggests he is aware that he's floating ideas and giving it his best shot at this point in his thought process, inviting you to investigate some notions and try them on for size.  I like his passion and his earnest commitment to helping us think things through, even as he makes jokes -- and some are really funny, if you're paying attention -- and doesn't take himself too seriously.

Bell does take his core readers seriously, interacting with questions he's been asked, responding to heart-rending episodes he's witnessed as a pastor, bearing witness to God'Rob-Bell-ap3-922x613.jpgs presence in the midst of some pretty horrible stuff. So I respect his intentions, which counts for a lot; he isn't in a safe enclave where everyone colors inside the lines, after all, and he works with those who are often questioning, intellectually energetic, and often alienated from conventional churches. He is trying to give an honest answer to those with honest questions.  Having said that, take him up, read him generously, and realize that he doesn't have to say everything in the world that needs said; he doesn't even have to say everything that needs saying about this topic.  Don't judge him for the book he didn't write or the things he neglects to say, but engage what he does say.  I think you just might find it fascinating, helpful, important, and fun.  
 
READ WIDELY, WITH DISCERNMENT
You know we believe in reading widely, with Biblically-informed discernment.  There are insights from old Puritans and there are insights from modern process theologians; we read old books and new ones, traditionalists and oddballs, Christian writers and non-Christians, too.  I trust that in recommending What We Talk About When We Talk About God to our readers you know that this is not the only theological book we recommend. We trust it is not the only theological book you will read. It is part of the puzzle, and may prove helpful in forming your ideas, but, obviously, you should read more, including those from other camps, with other styles. But do see this as a portal to more learning.  Bell himself says this. He has a child-like curiosity and has spent a few years reading very widely to prepare for this book -- he told me a bit about it when I was with him two years ago, with great glee about what he was learning, and I've been jazzed thinking about it since.

He has a fabulous set of endnotes exclaiming about stuff he recommends for further study -- he loves this book, suggests that TED talk, reminds you of this author or that website, and suggests this chapter of that book!  Man, he's energetic as a teacher and thought-promoter -- an evangelist of ideas -- so he'd agree that any given book is only a doorway to other books.  That doesn't earn him a pass from criticism nor does it mean you needn't critique bad books, but it does relativize things a bit -- it is what it is, one piece of the puzzle. I spent a good chunk of my Love Wins posts reviewing what Bell had contributed in his previous body of work and why his earlier insights were important, so don't forget that, either. There is some context to these things. (I still think, by the way, that his second book, Jesus Wants to Save Christians [HarperOne paperback; $14.99] is vastly under-appreciated and may still be his best work; his very short book on suffering and creativity, Drops Like Stars [HarperOne paperback; $12.99] is very evocative, and a beautiful essay. )
 
WORRIED? TWO THINGS
If you are worried that we are leading people astray, I suggest two things. 

Firstly, read What We Talk About When We Talk About God for yourself before fretting or gossiping, because, really, this is fascinating stuff, even a bit radical, but nothing that is going to lead people away from Christ.  Disregard any wild accusations saying that he is a pantheist (that is, one who believes that God is in all things, a heresy which he specifically repudiates.) Disregard those who are offering a literalistic reading of his Oldmobile metaphor in the promo video -- he isn't saying God is old-fashioned and needs to be gussied up for the 21st century. Some bloggers are just embarrassing themselves with false accusations of this sort.  It is not as controversial as some may presume it will be -- but if, after reading it,  it is seen as provocative, so be it; I think he is on to some good insights here, even if I might have said it (wouldn't we all?) a bit more prosaically.  Anyway, as Francis Schaeffer used to say, we should value the critics of traditional expressions of faith if they are asking good questions, even if they don't have all the answers, and there is no doubt that Bell is asking good questions. 

Secondly, again, don't overstate the detrimental role of one short book.  It is rare that one book will ruin somebody, so lighten up a bit. There are other things people should read and this book can be supplemented with other books, other essays, other authors. Even if you don't like Bell's tone or conclusions, talking through it with a friend or in a small group could be very fruitful.  Look up the Biblical texts he cites; get a Bible dictionary and study his occasional, but important, use of Hebrew and Greek.  Come on, open your mind, grapple with his contributions, give him a chance.  If you are that concerned about the dangers of being open-minded or don't yet feel confident enough in your knowledge of orthodox faith to engage creatively proposed ideas about God, and consider yourself a "weaker brethren" well, then, don't read it. We will graciously understand.  But for heaven's sake, don't think ill of those who can handle reading interesting stuff that may be a bit new or think ill of us for suggesting that many readers of contemporary books will find this worthwhile, enjoyable and inspiring.
 
WHO IS THE AUDIENCE? WHEN YOU READ IT WHO COMES TO MIND?
I am not sure who this book is really written for, but I immediately thought of several friends as I read it. The stuff about science, the bits about God's nearness, the good news of Christ being for us -- certain folks came to mind who I think need this said for them in this fresh manner.  I invite you to read it, prayerfully wondering if it would be the right resource for someone you know.

It seems to me that a good bit of it is offered to those who have given up on God, who are secular, rationalist, who, due to their interest in science, think that exploring faith is somehow lacking in intellectual credibility.  I will tell you more later about what Bell covers, the moves he makes to address this narrowing of what really counts, but you might guess that he critiques Enlightenment rationalism and scientism. That is, there are other things going on out there and within us, that we are not be able to measure as scientific data, and our most astute scientists and observers of the cosmos know it.  So, it is good for seekers, or those who need to have their faith in scientism shaken a bit.

I suspect it will appeal to anyone tired of fundamentalisms or who wants a more generous view of God and God's presence in their daily lives then they hear from the religious right. Some people you know (maybe you, yourself) have been burned by toxic sorts of faith and this could be a real life-line for them, for you. Social sciences (and your own experience, if you have conversations with non-church folk) tells us that there are many people interested in spirituality and God, even if they recoil from what they think God is like, based on stuff they may have heard in churches or from ill-informed Christians. This book could help them.

Actually, if you think you have God and God's involvement with the world all figured out (that is, if you are a fairly mature, traditional Christian, confident and impatient with those who are asking big questions about what we can know about the nature of God) read Bell -- he'll shake you up in a good way.  If you aren't sure that the idea of God can fit with our modern times and are vexed, read Bell -- he'll shake you up in a good way, too.  If you are a person who just wonders about the appeal of this hipster surfer dude with an artsy bohemian sensibility, by all means, read Bell.  In many ways he is a master communicator, taking remarkably complex things (in this case everything from astronomy and astrophysics to eucharistic theology and the divine nature of Jesus) and making them interesting, understandable, and relevant. And what a storyteller!  No wonder he has such a following -- he's fun to listen to and captivating to read, if you enjoy creative communicators with punchy illustrations. I wish more preachers would study him, if only to learn how to communicate with certain sorts of young adult thinkers these days.

By the way, the cover is incredibly retro, isn't  it?  I'm not a fan, but I don't like the comeback of mustaches and corny caps on the hipster men in indie bands these days, either.  There is an aesthetic going on here, and it is chosen for a reason. It may not be your style, but that may be just the reason to have it on your desk, grandpa.

SPEAK THE TRUTH IN LOVE
As I wrote in the prolegomenon to my review of Love Wins, we are called to speak the truth in love.  There is nothing wrong with being critical or disagreeing with how an author says something.  In fact, if they are teaching nonsense, then somebody should call them out on it.  But we must do this with great care, firstly making sure we properly understand what is at stake, and then never demeaning or mocking another person made in God's image. (There is a place for sarcasm in some settings, too, I think, but, again, we must be careful and honorable.)  To speak in love means we are to give the benefit of the doubt, not presume the worst, read generously, and write kindly.  I find it helpful to say what we like about a book before we say what we find disconcerting. That is, we are to be civil in our debates and not go for the jugular. 

Similarly, by the way, those who like Bell and are irritated that some don't appreciate him, should also be generous to his critics.  Not everybody who takes issue with some of his approaches or conclusions are haters and we should be careful not to caricature those who rebuke him. It is fair to push back against critics, but, again, be civil and fair-minded, presuming the best about their intentions. (You know those who are beyond the pale of civil discourse and are not interested in the edifying give and take of healthy conversation and I have learned the hard way that they should be avoided.) 

Look: some fans are not too discerning, and we might wish they were a bit more critical. Some critics are mean-spirited and nasty and we might wish they'd just shut up.  But most readers (certainly Hearts & Minds friends and customers) are not thoughtless loyalists or fundamentalist meanies.  So -- both sides! -- if you find yourself using those kind of cheap stereotypes and speaking with needless hostility, take it elsewhere. 

I'll tell you more about why I like the book in my next BookNotes column, but don't wait for me. It is an important book, it is interesting, and we've got it on sale, now.  You might be called upon to enter the conversation, so why wait?  Order it today. 

AND join Rob at a live streaming book launch event, Tuesday evening, March 12th.  You can tune into watch "Live from the powerHouse Arena" in Brooklyn, NY at 7PM EST. (That would be 4PM on the West Coast.)? Join the conversation via USTREAM at www.robbelllive.com.

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March 12, 2013

A REVIEW ESSAY: What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell (HarperOne) ON SALE - $20.00

Sorry this is so long.  That's why I placed it as a monthly review column -- it's too long for a BookNotes blog post. But at least I didn't do numerous posts like I did for Love Does. Whew.


Thanks to those who wrote nice remarks about yesterday's prelude of a post about the newhat we talk about cover.jpgw Rob Bell book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne; regularly $25.99, now on sale for $20.00.  Just click on the order link below.) I tried to generate some interest in purchasing the book from us -- it's what we do, after all, as a bookstore -- but mostly reminded readers to be gracious and fair in expressing thoughts about Bell or the new book.  Like with the 2011 Bellapalooza battle about Love Wins, already some are weighing in with strong views about the new one, even though they admit they haven't even read the book.  We think this is beyond tacky.  My piece last night mostly hoped to set a little higher bar for discourse.  Writing, as one person did, that this book will be bad because in his last book Bell didn't use "true Scriptures" simply is inadequate.  Saying he is a bad boy looking for attention, again, just won't do.  So, if you didn't see that post about how to engage this new book, you might appreciate it.  I'm no saint when it comes to on-line debating, but I do wish to honor God and be more understanding, and kindly. I bet you do, too.

But I did promise a few more thoughts about the new book.

It is hard to be succinct since reading Bell is, for me, a very enjoyable, thought-proving, and yet sometimes a frustrating experience. I was irked by the second page, in fact. Ha.  I needn't digress about my own experience of turning his pages, but I can at least say this: I don't mind his style.  I like his moody versification, his writing as if narrating a Nooma video.  Some don't care for it -- fine. Some go too far, though, suggesting it is somehow intentionally vague (which I think is an unfair accusation: one can say it may be ambiguous, or sloppy, but to say it is intentionally slippery enters into a judgement of his motives, which isn't yours to know, without evidence, at least.)
 
So,  mostly I like his style; in fact, it actually helps me focus on his thoughts, line by line.  I thought a few of the Nooma's, by the way, were absolutely brilliant and many were quite good (even if a few were disappointing, in both style and content.)  But saying that his books can be read/heard as one might hear a Nooma I mean to be a very sincere compliment.
 
Sure, I read dense theology sometimes, and still - when I want to think about God - I might pull down a copy of the rigorous J. I. Packer's Knowing God or mull over the lovely depth of Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline and I hope our readers know A.W. Tozer's Pursuit of God.  Rob Bell himself routinely (and in this new one, too) raves about the tedious, but important, The Divine Conspiracy by the remarkable Dallas Willard.  Most of us like different sorts of books in our literary diet, and so appreciate Bell's bohemian edge, even if it isn't the only kind of medium we like.  People that gripe about his style strike me as a bit myopic.  Would you critique a poem for being a poem? A reflective meditation for being a meditation?

Further, I like books with which I can converse, and his flamboyant style is well suited for this.  I like books to which I can talk back, scribble in the margins, smack my head, call my wife. Listen to this, can you believe this?  Agree or not, being provoked to think, to engage, to exercise the mind, to piece together parts of a growing worldview and wonder what difference it may make, all of this makes for a good read, and Bell delivers in spades.
 
Maybe you are a very young Christian, or at least unfamiliar with reliable Christian books about basic Christian beliefs.  I don't think this interesting Bell book will hurt you - and it just might help! - but there are tons of other books that lay out the basic orthodox views of faith with greater systematic clarity, and you should own a few. Those are important to read, and we regularly recommend them to our customers depending on what they tell us about their needs.  New to Christian reading? Unsure of the basics?  Mentoring a new believer?  Shoot us an email and let's talk. But don't badmouth Bell because this book is not quite right for that purpose. Okay?

In yesterday's post I wondered who is intended as the primary audience for Rob Bell.  As I insinuated, it seems to me that there are several key audiences.  Certainly, it is suited for seekers, agnostics, those who have given up on God.  It is an old apologetic retort, but it is common to hear it said that when somebody says they don't believe in God, we might reply "Tell me about the God you don't believe in. Chances are, I don't believe in that God, either."  So right!

RRob-Bell-ap3-922x613.jpgob Bell is very effective in reaching out and speaking with those who feel exiled from traditional faith communities, who are ex-churched or de-churched, or even hostile to Christian convictions. There are lots of people who may not feel comfortable in the most conventional of congregations (conservative or liberal) but yet are willing to consider Biblical claims when shared creatively, as Bell can.  It is a cliché to say he is post-modern, and almost as clichéd to say he is artsy, even if he is as cool as they come, cites a number of very cool bands, uses his share of irony, and embodies - as do his stylized book covers - a very particular aesthetic.   It's how he rolls, it's who he is, it is his own subculture. (He mentioned Sigur Ros in his live streaming event on Tuesday -- see what I mean?)  Nobody writes off the work of Larry the Cable guy because of his cut-off flannel sleeves or the business casual slacks of Bill Hybels as we works the suburban crowd or the numbered jerseys of the many sports stars who have been given platforms to express their understanding of the gospel in terms to which jocks can relate. To criticize Bell because he has a certain look is unfair and I think betrays a misunderstanding of cross cultural witness.  I do not think this is a marketing ploy but it is just who Rob is, and it is just who naturally likes his work, his ethos, his books.  Coach Tony Dungy talks about Christian leadership using sports images while wearing expensive athletic shoes; Bell cites ironic mustaches and en vogue art installations.
 
Yet, as I said last night, I think others, too, are in that tribe of core readers, besides the hip un-churched and the interested but exiled.  There are many of us who are not necessarily jaded, not de-churched, but we are sensitive to those who are.  We want to be sure faith isn't unnecessarily turning people off.  Like Rob, we have heard harmful things said about God, and harmful things said in the name of God.  We want this to stop, and we are looking for allies in the campaign to share the gospel in meaningful ways, learning how to contextualize faith in and to the 21st century, especially to younger adults.  So we are drawn to Bell's honesty and his hopeful vision, appreciate his speaking out against the dumber versions of faith, and his creative and earnest desire to help those alienated from faith imagine a different kind of religious experience than those that have turned them off. 

As he says in his apropos Oldsmobile metaphor, for many, faith is outdated, for then, not now, for others, not themselves.  Kind of like the great old cars that are not even made any more and are soon to be seen as merely a relic of the olden days.  Bell, it should be repeated, does not say that God has to change or be made to seem fashionable, but only that our way of telling the old old story may need to be updated; how we talk about God is what may need to be revisited. (I wish he were more clear about this in the video, frankly, but I think is is adequately clear about it in the book.) Do you disagree with this idea, as a matter of principle? Why or why not?  Saying God doesn't change isn't necessary to say, since that isn't the point here, as Bell does not suggest otherwise. God is God. We don't make up what we think God should be like. But we may need to wonder why ways of talking about God and faith and salvation are considered by some to be irrelevant, or worse. Bell does not use the word missional or evangelistic, but those of us with a heart for outreach will surely appreciate his intent, here (or at least we should.)  For those bloggers who have already taken him to task for this "we have to update God" meme, I'd suggest reconsidering, since that is not what he says, and I don't think that is what he means. 

And there are other readers. You, perhaps. You maybe are not a cynic or agnostic.  You aren't particularly interested or called to a ministry of reaching out to design-conscious, edgy, young post-Christian professionals who are jaded and de-churched. Maybe you are in a solid church, and know most of the right answers, you trust God and know His Word.  But you still feel like something is wrong.  Something isn't computing, stuff you hear doesn't fully seem right.  Or answers with which you were once satisfied no longer ring as true as they once did.  This can be scary, or exhilarating, or both, and I think Bell's way of talking about things may be helpful for you.

You realize, I assume, that there are quandaries galore.  There just are. For instance, many churches thank God for specific good things that have occurred, but does that mean God has caused the bad things? (For every person for whom we give a "praise report" there are more whose similar prayers were not answered in that happy way, right?)  We thank God if a tornado shifts it's course and doesn't hit our town, but what about the town it did hit?  What we say when we say things about God's work in the world is complicated and it isn't wrong, and may be helpful, to just admit that.  So, maybe, this book isn't just for the skeptic seekers or the jaded cynics, the prodigals or the exiles (or those who want to learn how to be in conversation with them.)  Maybe it is also for anyone who has the curiosity (faith? courage?) to want to learn more, to follow their noses, to think through some big ideas about the very nature of what we can know about the God who is there.

So, give it to your scientific agnostic friends, give it to your cynical de-churched friends, and give it to anybody who wants a fresh, inviting take on some very heavy questions.  Young or old, seeker or disciple, scientist or artist, I think there is content in What We Talk About When We Talk About God that can point you to new and appropriate ways to think about God and to embrace the goodness and wonder of God's Spirit in our midst.  As I said last night, it isn't the only book to read, and it doesn't cover everything - not at all.  It is not prefect. But what it does, it does with verve and passion and candor, fascinating illustrations and great stories. As a bookseller, I think this is a fine specimen, and you will get your monies worth. (By the way, it is available as an audio book and we stock the CD as well.)
 
WHAT HE DOES NOT SAY
What does Mr. Bell actually say about how we talk about God?

Well, (sorry) first I want to note, briefly, two things he does not say, which I think are notable.  

He doesn't say anything about the various attributes of God - God's omnipresence, God's holiness, God's power, and the like.  At least he doesn't catalog them systematically and explicate them. Other books do that (it is a time-honored habit, although the Bible itself, we might note, doesn't actually give us a formal list like that, but we pick it up along the way of narrative and songs and mysteries.) Anyway, if a person isn't even sure there is a divine being or intelligent designer or higher power, detailed descriptions of omniscience or immutability maybe isn't what's needed. (Some have argued that these ways of getting at our knowledge of God is itself perhaps more entangled with pagan Greek philosophy than the Bible, anyway, but that is a different discussion.) For those who are convinced the God of the Bible, or at least the one they've heard about, is not glorious, perhaps even a moral monster, we need a different way to even get at this question than a listing of attributes.   

Secondly, Bell doesn't spend much time telling us that much of what we know about God is revealed to us in the Scriptures.  He cites the Scriptures, so there is this clear assumption that they are the primary resource for what we know (that, and our experience, itself a common enough insight.)  But he doesn't go on about this.  Many will wish he'd have talked about that, this question of revelation, and how we know anything about God at all. (Happily, as we will see, he is clear that the best illustration of who God is is seen in the person of Jesus, so he is more than solid there.)  So that, in my view, is a weakness, to not even discuss this.
 
Well, if he doesn't offer a standard fare cataloging of the attributes of God, and he doesn't offer a perspective on the authority of Scripture as that which mediates the stories of God for us, what does he do?
 
What We Talk About When We Talk About God is fairly simple in format and the chief points it makes. And, I think, he right about them.
         
His three big points about God are preceded by three big preliminaries. These are important for Bell, and for us, and are about half the book. Let's start there.

HUM // OPEN
Not unlike the Nooma videos, and his other books, if I recall, each chapter title is one evocative word.  After a grand opening chapter called "Hum" where he suggests we all know there is something bigger than us, something going on, something alive and meaningful loose in the world, and in our lives, Bell invites us in a chapter called "Open" to be open to the plausibility of God, and he does this mostly by explaining quantum physics, black holes, the expanding universe and a whole lot of wacky stuff like Einstein's theory of relativity and Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. 

This is the same Rob Bell the science guy we met in his amazing long-form DVD "Everything Is Spiritual" so we shouldn't be surprised, and it is very nicely done.  This is as painless and wondrous a study of this stuff as you can find, so it will be beneficial to those of us who struggle to stay awake, despite the wonder of it all.  (The next step up for lay folks can be found in the short and glorious book by Barbara Brown Taylor called The Luminous Web: Essays on Science and Religion (Cowley; $13.95) which has a similar jaw-dropping wide-eyed wonder to it, offering a theological/doxological response to these stupefying discoveries. Rob himself offers some other suggestions in the endnotes, including the work of Anglican physicist, John Polkinghorne.  We carry his books, too, by the way.)
 
Bell says we all know there is some sort of Something going on out there as we consider the magnitude of the universe - or inside us, as we are enjoying a good meal with dear friends and we know it has moved us deeply, in a soulful sort of way. Why do we feel as we do when we see a newborn baby?   Many human experiences seem to only make sense if they point to something Beyond us. He is poetic and honest and good on this, very good.  As another excellent book puts it (that I describe briefly below) we are "yearning for more."

This is nothing all that new, of course -- it's just the argument from design spoken with edgy examples for post-moderns; it's the the "signals of transcendence" argument for ordinary folks, as we are invited to wonder why we glory at the birth of a baby or are so stunned when we hear of heroism or tragedy or beauty.  Life simply is not meaningless, there is a hum just below the surface, and if you don't think this is helpful to say when you're talking with atheists or agnostics, I suspect you haven't talked deeply with folks like that very much.  The sublime reality of the reality of God around us in this glorious but sin-damaged universe can only be said in countless metaphors and images, and Bell offers us a fabulous way to get it said, one more time. What he says and how he says it isn't all we need to say - Something is Out There - but it is a good start, and he does it delightfully, with a moral seriousness that is more than commendable, it is honorable. In his heart, it seems he is an evangelist, wanting to share gospel news, blessings of grace and peace, to those distrustful or immunized against it.
 
I think of conversations I have had about these most deeply important things and I am nearly moved to tears just wondering if my agnostic friends would resonate with this...

CRITIQUE OF SCIENTISM
An important part of this conversation is a huge, huge matter in our culture (and has been for more than a hundred years, as he explains) and What We Talk About... broaches it head on with gusto.  It is the matter of scientism, the ideology that goes beyond saying that science is good, that the deductions we make using the scientific method can yield amazing data about how the world works, but insists that this is the only way to know anything at all. 

Beauty, love, justice, dignity? How does one measure such things?  To those under the boot heel of scientism - perhaps the largest competing religion to Christianity in the last few hundred years - we cannot talking meaningfully about such matters.  If it cannot be measured, it cannot be known as true. (I was told this directly by more than one college professor in my days as a special ed major!)  We may experience things like that -- awe, beauty, love -- but they are inconsequential, chemical firings in an evolving brain, and we cannot speak of such things as anything other than cause and effect, data, chemicals, accidents of nature, so to speak.  This is sometimes called scientific materialism (not meaning that greedy scientists want a lot of consumer stuff, but that all that matters is matter.) This reductionism to the merely natural/material is a dead-end worldview, and fundamentally inhumane.  Interestingly, Bell says that our best scientists themselves reject this view. I don't know how true that is, how many scientists reject naturalistic reductionism, but the mystery and wonder of the world is certainly discussed by the likes of Einstein, just for once example.  (It was his call to wonder, you might remember, that led Madeline L'Engle to study quantum physics, deepen her Christian faith, and write Wrinkle in Time.) One needn't fully agree with all of the woozy Ken Wilber stuff that Bell is enamored with to celebrate his primary point: there is some weird goings on in this crazy world of ours, and most of it points to something grand, nearly inexplicable, and many of the deepest scientific thinkers are nearly mystical about it. String theorists nearly sound like poets.  Scientism and naturalism is boring and intellectually unsustainable in comparison.

An aside. Last week we had the opportunity to set up a book display at a Veritas Forum discussion at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania.  The agenda - which attracted up towards 1000 participants - was to explore this question:  is scientific knowledge the only true knowledge?  A winsome Christian professor from MIT, Dr. Ian Hutchinson, exposed the hegemony of this sort of scientism, and we sold his book with a very important title: Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism  (Lulu; $18.95.) An popular atheist professor from U of Penn replied, and the event was educational, enlightening in some ways, and altogether cordial.  But Hutchinson the scientist is right, and in reading Rob Bell this week, I realized, again, how important his thesis is.  "Monopolizing Knowledge" is a way to describe how traditional ways of knowing and therefore traditional religions have been marginalized or mocked in the modern world, that scientific naturalism, itself founded on shaky presuppositions, cannot adequately account for the very nature of the complex universe we all experience.  (Ahh, remember that Walt Whitman poem, When I Heard the Learned Astronomer?) 

Bell is not strident in rebuking this dumb idol, but he makes no bones about it: such a mechanistic view is not liberal or open-minded or generous, but is closed-minded and ideological and stuffy. I wonder if Bell been reading Hutchinson?

Another aside: I have mentioned Dallas Willard.  He has written amazing books about the process of becoming more Christ-like, works like the aforementioned The Divine Conspiracy (HarperOne), The Spirit of the Disciplines (HarperOne) and Renovation of the Heart (NavPress.) He is interested in questions of spiritual formation and disciple-making. But he is also a top-notch philosopher, and has done in his own profession some important work on how we know what we know, and what kind of knowing counts. He has written about this, and although it is a tad heady, it is very important.  You should know his book Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge (HarperOne.) It has gotten blurbs by the likes of sociologist Peter Berger. Richard Foster calls it a "must read" and says,  that Willard "focuses like a laser beam on the issue of moral knowledge as a legitimate source for understanding reality and applying it to daily life."  I wonder if Rob Bell is reading this one of Dallas Willard? 

Another aside. Bell does not explore this question, but we might as well bring it up: if there is only a closed system of atoms and material, and no possibility of Something Else, that is, if mere naturalism is the worldview that is true, then it also must be said (although few are courageous enough to follow this out to its logical consequence) that therefore there can be no binding right or wrong.  My friend Dick Cleary wrote a good novel about this, set on a modern college campus where the monopolizing of knowledge has been being played full court.  In The Absence of God (Xulon Press; $24.99) is a captivating fictional story that imagines the conversations among faculty and students who want to be revolted by a sadistic killer loose on campus, but are unclear how--given what they've been taught about relativism and atheism--to make moral judgments against it. If there is no God, there can be no absolute truth, and therefore no real right or wrong, so whose to say, ya know?  It is a book about campus life, faculty politics, collegiate football, a bit of romance, and a suspenseful thriller, too, but it is finally an exploration about the reductionism and inhumanity of the modernist worldview that says what you see is all you get.  I wonder if Bell has been reading Cleary?

BOTH
The next preliminary chapter doesn't take much to explain, but it is fascinating.  It is called "Both" and, as you can guess, Bell criticizes black/white dichotomous thinking, and insists that this is part of our starting problem when thinking about religious truth and God and faith.  Things are most often both/and, not either/or, he says. This could get funky, and I suspect it does, but Bell is persuasive insisting that simple answers and knee-jerk reactions and bolting down rigid formulaic replies aren't adequate to explain the deepest matters of the heart.  One could say that this is a "straw man" argument but I think that it mostly is not, and to say so is nearly a cheap shot.  There are, in fact, overly simplistic formulas and narrowed down views of truth and God that are too often promoted, with no questions or nuanced allowed, and this is not good or helpful, and Mr. Bell is not wrong to say so.  Not everyone with orthodox views is such a reductionist and it would be silly to suggest that traditional faith always leads to dry, dead black/white constructions. Bell draws on the classic Promise of Paradox by Parker Palmer here, if that gives you a sense of where he's coming from.  Yet, as Trevin Wax at the Gospel Coalition has noted, traditional, robust, historic orthodox faith holds many paradoxes, perhaps more profoundly, than the somewhat one-sided "God is for you" view of Bell's book.

This both/and approach is important to Bell, though, and he makes his point talking about a very honest, forthright, but kind counselor he had once.  Of him, Bell says,

He was kind and humble and open, and yet firm and rock solid and unshakable.
All at the same time.
He was a  man of faith,
deeply grounded in his convictions,
and yet those firm convictions didn't close him down or harden him or make him brittle and close minded; they had the exact opposite effect. They seemed to make him more flexible and limber and engaging.
Like a tree,
planted near the water,
with deep  roots.
A  storm comes and the tree doesn't break because it's ground enough to... bend.

He continues,

I believe this is one of the most urgent questions people are asking at this time about the very nature of faith: can convictions and humility coexist as the dance partners we need them  to be?

I say yes, they can. I have seen it up close, and it's possible. It requires that we pay as much attention to how we are talking as to what we are talking about, and it requires us to leave the paradox as it is, the tension unresolved, holding our convictions with humility.
THE THREE BIG WORDS
WITH // FOR // AHEAD

You are going to have to read the book yourself to get to the heart of his teaching, and grapple with the implications, but it is found most clearly in three central chapters.  His one word starters are "With" (as in God is with us) "For" (God is for us) and "Ahead" (God is calling us into a future of God's own making, a restoring/healing/hope that is already on the move.)

The first half of What We Talk About... is not at all inconsequential - these questions with which he starts are vital, and I am glad to have allowed Bell to remind me of them, for my own sake, and to give me more tools and insights as I speak with others.

I am glad to be called to attend to the hum in and around all things, to be reminded of the inadequacy of scientistic ideologies that are closed to wonder and mystery, even in spite of  the direction the greatest scientific discoveries are pointing us, and for the invitation to a both/and, wholistic vision of the meaning of life that is more than brittle formulas.  An early review noted that these sorts of questions seem themselves to have a Hebraic stamp on them.  I hope this is not "foolishness to the Greeks" but it may be.  On the other hand, in this new postmodern era, these reflections themselves offer wise hints towards bearing witness in fruitful ways. Scientism has its limits and despite the upswing of the "new atheists" it seems that many people know, deeply, that there is more to life than meets the eye.  Geesh, just watch TV for one night and look at the best-seller list of highbrow novels.

But it is the second half of What We Talk About When We Talk About God that will be most interesting to some. It explores how the Bible teaches that God is with us, upholding every bit of life in this material world; God is known in Jesus Christ, Immanuel, which makes evident that God is truly for us, which draws us into God's rescue work in a world made new.  His discussions of the cross are fine, and the role of the Spirit is interesting and obviously informed by the magisterial work of Jurgen Multmann. (Bell cites as "incredible" Moltmann's The Spirit of Life in his endnotes. Do I need to mention that we stock a number of the famous German's books?  Yes, we do.)

You should grapple with this yourself, but I was frustrated that Bell seems disinterested in the sovereign  transcendence of God.  That is, he is so intent on telling us about God's nearness, that he avoids talk of holiness, Otherness, and such.  And, in this "advance" bit, he seems to suggest that everyone, everywhere, is caught up in this good news, an implication of the position developed in his last book, a view that leaves some Biblical teaching out, or so it seems to me. You will hopefully talk about this kind of thing with others as you are provoked to deeper thoughts by reading this for yourself.  I am glad Bell offers good news and seems so full of hope, but I also hope it isn't mere wishful thinking, a one-sided account of the end for which the world was made. 

Bell's helpful teaching about the way in which God is so very near all things, and how God's own Word upholds all things is good. Again, as I said last night, this is not pantheism, a wrong-headed view he directly renounces. (Some may call it panentheism and that will be debated and criticized, I predict.) Call it what you will, but it is, I think, just what the Bible teaches. You should see Barbara Brown Taylor's lovely Altar in This World: A Geography of Faith (HarperOne; $14.99) for a wonderful set of meditations on this; we have a whole shelf  of these "finding God in the ordinary" sorts of ruminations, by the way, and Bell suggests a few in his own endnotes, too.

Bell's view of the immanence of God, and God's upholding Word of power, over ground that can now be called "holy" is something close to what Abraham Kuyper and Herman Dooyeweerd taught, I think, and leads more conventional theologians to the doctrine of creational ordinances, the discovery of which can happen through common grace.  That Bell sees God's hand in all manner of things and sees the flourishing of the planet as part of God's merciful desires in a world Christ loves, shouldn't be shocking, although some may find it somehow irreligious.
 
I hope you know Richard Mouw's fine book on this notion of common grace called He Shines In All That's Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans; $14.00.)  If Bell's exotic vision sounds controversial, perhaps critics should read the exquisitely careful Mouw -- who draws on that fine line from the famous hymn "This Is Our Father's Word" -- and then go back and re-read Bell.  Or maybe serious readers should struggle with the huge argument made in the weighty Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement by Stephen Bouma-Prediger and Brian Walsh (Eerdmans; $27.00) who make a powerful, intriguing, complex case for why we feel so ill at ease, nearly displaced for our earthly homes (and for some, literally so), and how bad theology is partially to blame. It opens up remarkably just how such displacement from place leads to a less than sustainable economy, carelessness about the environment, and our needy brothers and sisters. In great and prophetic detail, this is the sort of stuff that Bell's argument about God's nearness to all creation, God's saving work for us, and God's restoring work around us naturally leads us to.
 
SO
Which leads to the last chapter of What We Talk About When We Talk About God called "So."  I  have my tongue in my cheek a little when I say there ought to be a publishing world law: every book should have to have a chapter like this at the end, asking "So what?"

For Mr. Bell, this isn't a tacked-on quick ending, an epilogue, but a substantial and vital rumination on how all this matters. This is the part where he lists a handful of peculiar illustrations, and a few people who had heard about this right away mocked him for saying he was going to talk about monkeys eating peanuts, for instance. Well, hey, the monkey/peanut eating research is pretty darn amazing, and it works well as an illustration.  Bell uses some other equally fabulously interesting illustrations to get to his point about what N.T. Wright might call "realized eschatology." In Bell's rubric, it is how we are pulled into the future of God, by God, into a way of life that is Christ-like and perceives the presence of God in all things.

Here, in this last strong chapter, Bell offers some very helpful suggestions about seeing God behind our common sayings (getting something off our chest; being struck in such ways that we go "over the moon" etc.) and how we might confess our sins to one another, being in touch more with our shadow sides (which, too, disclose God's activity in our lives and can become holy ground.) He alludes to some neuroscience research, invites us to consider ways to be more integrated as whole people, becoming more Christ-like in the process. Not surprisingly, he mentions architecture and aesthetics, reminding us (has he been reading Jamie Smith?) that embodied practices and habits learned in concrete communities matter profoundly.   I like this call to (counter-cultural) reverential practices that might help us re-enchant our daily lives and help create the sort of renewal in the world we long for.  Be the change you want to see, you know...  Again, this is helpful, good stuff, but not terribly controversial.  It is fresh and fascinating and funny and I enjoyed it a lot.  You just might, too.  And I bet you know somebody who would.
 
Bell puts it eloquently in the second to last page (before a less than satisfying closing) when he describes Paul writing in Philippians 1:6

Paul does something really, really clever here in this letter that many of his contemporary Jewish writers often did: he uses particular words in a particular order so that he can say multiple things at the same time.  Paul uses the words begin and good work and complete very deliberately; those are loaded words, because they're used in that same order in the Genesis creation poem that begins the Bible... So when Paul, a man thoroughly versed in the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, uses those particular words in that particular order in his letter to his friends, he's connecting their story to the creation of the universe.

His point is that the same creative bang that formed the universe is unleashed in us through our trust in what God is doing in the world through Jesus. His insistence is that this extraordinary energy in all its diverse and expansive forms is deeply personal and readily available and on our side.

I believe this is true.

HERE ARE SOME OTHER BOOKS THAT COME TO MIND
Here are a handful of books that I thought of when I read through What We Talk About When... This is not to say that any of these were influential to Bell or that these authors would appreciate being connected to Bell's project. I like the head-bone's-connected-to-the-neck-bone approach where one thing sort of leads to another.  Check these out.

Yearning for More: What Our Longs Tell Us About God and Ourselves  Barry Morrow (IVP) $15.00  If you liked his opening chapter "the hum" this will be amazingly helpful, really interesting, and I am sure you'll order more to share with others.  Kenneth Boa writes the foreword where he affirms the author for "a penchant for leveraging culture to illuminate timeless spiritual issues." This is one of the best books of the year, and  I very highly recommend it.
 
Monopolizing Knowledge: A Scientist Refutes Religion-Denying, Reason-Destroying Scientism  Ian Hutchinson (Lulu) $18.95  I wrote about this above, and, again, suggest it as a great example of one of the largest philosophical matters of our time.  Lewis approached this in The Abolition of Man and it is the topic of the amazing recent Oxford University Press book Where the Conflict Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism by Alvin Plantinga. Even more philosophical, the atheist philosopher of science Thomas Nagel recently released, to much publicity in journals of opinion, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinist Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (Oxford University Press.)  Hutchinson's is new and interesting and accessible, and a fine one with which to start.

Rationality and the Calvinian Tradition edited by Henk Hart, Johan Van Der Hoeven & Nicholas Wolterstorff (Wipf & Stock) $58.00  This rare book used to be on waiting lists at used bookstores everywhere, and is finally been quietly re-issued.  These were the papers from a hugely important and much-talked about conference in the early 1980s co-sponsored by the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto, asking this major question of what is the best way to explain the legitimate role of reason (while rejecting Rationalism) within Reformed thinking.  If Rob Bell has helped us expose the secularizing assumptions of Enlightenment modernity and its idol of reductionist rationalism - he does this astutely, by showing how it effects ordinary people and their search for meaning - then what is the proper use of reason?  Who has most helped us see this, and what theological traditions have wrongly wedded our rhetoric and ideas to Enlightenment rationalism? From Al Wolters to John Frame, Danie Strauss to Charles Partee, Alvin Plantinga and many others, this is a truly amazing band of world-class scholars!  As Wolterstorff himself put it in his small but powerful treatise, we must seek Reason within the Bounds of Religion (Eerdmans.)  This is a perennial matter and this heavy, complex, and radical rethinking of it all is essential for serious philosophers. I've been wanting to tell our scholarly readers about this and waiting for the right moment. Here it is utterly germane. The last section of it, by the way, is about the problem of our language about God.  Rob Bell, call your office.  This is amazing stuff.

Your God is Too Safe: Rediscovering the Wonder of a God You Can't Control  Mark Buchanan (Multnomah) $15.99  I love this writer (Eugene Peterson wrote the foreword, by the way) and commend him for those who want fine writing that isn't odd or deep.  He is more substantive, I think, than Max Lucado, but he's warm like that.  But a bit wilder, as the book title suggests.  Listen to what the conventional Reformed heavy weight J.I. Packer says of it: "Within a framework of biblical orthodoxy, Mark Buchanan's  jabbing insights minister a salutary pastoral shake-up, drawing and driving us sluggards to come closer to our God."  Ha.  Sluggards. I dare ya to read this, you sluggards.  I admit, this isn't exactly how Rob Bell puts it, but if you like Bell, you don't mind being jabbed a bit.  This is a great book.

Finding the Lost Images of God: Uncover the Ancient Culture, Discover Hidden Meanings  Timothy S. Laniak (Zondervan) $12.99 This full color, handsome handbook series ("Ancient Context, Ancient Faith") includes several lovely books, each drawing on key insights from the original languages and cultures of the Biblical lands.  Informed by good scholarship from middle eastern cultures - informed by writers like the brilliant Kenneth Bailey, for instance - this series allows us to realize fabulous insights embedded in the Bible that we might not otherwise see.  In this case, these are nice cultural studies about buildings, warfare, fields, flocks, and the like.  What divine images are used to tell us about God? How can our own creativity relate to God's?  Bell does some of this sort of stuff, opening up basic insights about the culture from which the Bible was written, and helps us learn more.  This is a very nice book, clear and helpful for anyone.

The Unfolding Mystery of the Divine Name: The God of Sinai in Our Midst Michael P. Knowles (IVP Academic) $22.00  I noted that Bell's book was not strong on using the Bible as the key document for knowing about the nature of God.  He uses the Bible a lot, often creatively, but this is the sort of book that as you work slowly through it, will pay off in loads of wisdom and insight.  John Goldingay says "How marvelous it would be if Christians started believing that God is as Scripture portrays him and as Dr. Knowles expounds its portrayal with such a wideness of vision and breadth of insight." This is about God's own self-disclosure in Exodus 34, and Walter Brueggemann says of this close textual study, that it "teems with fresh insight and will reward a careful reading."

Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History From the Puritans to The Passion of Christ Stephen J. Nichols (IVP Academic) $20.00  One of the big beefs that drives Bell, as well it should, is how God has been domesticated and how those who claim to follow Jesus often seem to have a culturally-created image of the Master. (Who was it that said you know you've made God in your own image when God tends to have the same enemies that you have.) Well, this is the best -- and surely most fascinating -- historical study of the uniquely American usage of Jesus.  Nichols is good at  pop culture, and he is a conservative Reformed thinker (from nearby Lancaster Bible College.) I doubt if he'd see himself similar to Bell, but they share this in common -- they are interested in deconstructing how God (and in this case, the second Person of the Trinity) is misconstrued and abused by what we might call cultural captivity.  With rave reviews from historians like Mark Noll and D.G. Hart and Doug Sweeney, this is a masterful bit of legitimate scholarship, and a huge wake-up call, warning us against distorted images that creep in to the popular vocabulary and mindset.  No wonder Bell has to shake us up with this nonsense in the air.  A very interesting and very important book.

The Idolatry of God: Breaking Our Addiction to Certainty and Satisfaction  Peter Rollins (Howard) $14.99  Rollins is a hot young theologian, storyteller, mystic, who is deep and not just a little eccentric. Bell likes him, as do those who tend to identify with the emergent conversations. Some serious thinkers esteem him and I'm told he is a captivating speaker.  I enjoy and have read many of the authors who like him, but, to be honest, I just don't quite get him or his several books. I get that he affirms questioning and doubt. Fine.  I like the title of his first book (even if the book was boring to me) How (Not) to Talk About God (Paraclete.)  Bell draws on him from time to time, it seems. One of the major points of his project and most of his books is both sensible and yet profoundly unsettling: when we talk to confidently about God we've already transgressed, making some sort of idol, reducing God to the words we've said about God. We confuse the image and the Reality.  Ancient Jews knew this - even Abraham Heschel, for instance, gets at this, another vital author Bell cites. This new book of Rollins' (which the back cover calls "incendiary") invites us to embrace our brokenness and our unknowing.  This is some funky stuff. 

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March 20, 2013

15 Books That Come to Mind While Talking About Rob Bell's Latest Book About God

Since my first two reviews (the shorter intro here and the big column, here) of the new Rowhat we talk about cover.jpgb Bell book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God (HarperOne) which we have on sale at an introductory price for just $20.00, there have been some fascinating responses. Of course there are gobs of blogs.  I've weighed in a time or two at various internet sites, and continue to worry that Christian people, not unlike others, I guess, are sometimes not very skilled in analyzing things and making fair-minded cases for or against something.  We mostly liked the book, even though it had weaknesses (properly emphasizing the nearness of God but not saying much about the holy transcendence of God; strongly proclaiming the mercy of God's grace, but not much about repentance or judgement; telling good Bible stories, but not being very didactic about how God is or isn't revealed by Scripture.) Still, the book is interesting and useful, and I don't think it deserves to be attacked in the cyncial way some have done. And some who have criticized it have dipped into accusations about the authors motives or intentions, which I think is just plain wrong.

So, again, let's play fair out there.  And don't go out alone.  Reading clubs, book groups, Sunday school classes, and prayer partners are all good places to talk about provocative books -- find somebody to read and talk with.  Read for the Kingdom, by reading in community.

In this complex matter of what we talk about when we talk about God, (or, for that matter, what we talk about when we talk about Rob Bell) a lot of thoughts have crossed my feeble brain this week. We've got bookshelves jam-packed with titles about God and theology, and I can hardly read a blog or hear an opinion of somebody about Mr. Bell and his book without thinking of other titles that might also be interesting, somewhat enlightening, fruitful or fun. 

15 BOOKS
You're a book lover or you wouldn't be following along here, so I know you're gonna love this.  Here's a list of 15 titles that I grabbed off our shelves (most of them new) that for one reason on another, are worthy of a shout-out here in March of 2013, post-Bell's new book.  Whether you like Rob Bell or not, whether you've read What We Talk About... or not, here are some more to consider adding to your collection.  I'll share a few that are quite good, not terribly academic, and tell you why they matter in this conversation.  In no particular order.  You can order them at our Hearts & Minds bookstore website order form link below at a BookNotes sale of 20% off any books mentioned.

We've shown the regular retail price.  We'll knock off the 20% discount when we process your order. Enjoy!

Aforce of will.jpg Force of Will: The Reshaping of Faith in a Year of Grief  Mike Stavlund (Baker) $14.99  In his new book, Rob Bell makes  (among other things) at least one clear-headed, simple case: huge and gross human suffering may cause us to re-think God.  This is not controversial, and is a situation, leading to a quest for clarity about God which is older than Job. This new book is a ragged, honest journal kept by a missional church planting pastor whose 4 year old died. Nicholas Wolterstorff, whose own journal after the death of his son remains a quiet classic, writes of Savlund's book that it is a "gripping, unflinchingly honest, beautifully-written model  of how to live with grief in faith." As Shane Claiborne says of it, "Mike talks about pain without trying to theologize it away..." This takes some re-thinking about the ways of God with humankind, and Bell is right to invite us to this conversation. There are, sadly, many books like this and some are exquisitely well done. People who have suffered and struggled like this have much to teach us. You should read several of these kinds of books, keeping your heart tender and your mind grappling -- maybe read one of this sort of book every year if you can bear it.  Start with this.

Ssnake o.jpgnake Oil: The Art of Healing and Truth Telling  Becca Stevens (Jericho Books) $21.99  This is the memoir of a gentle and deeply spiritual writer who has previously done poetic little books about her work with homeless and abused women in her shelter/community Thistle Farms. The Very Widely Read Phyllis Tickle says it is "one of the best reads I have had in a very long time. Stevens is a consummate storyteller...poignant, persuasive, witty, wise, and, ultimately, a passionate lover of God."  Mr. Bell doesn't write about this much, but he hints at how God can bring inner healing, how Christ is alive in redemptive ways that, if we are brave and open, we can embrace all this, for our growth and restoration, in great hope.  This story is an example of just that, wounded women finding new hope. Becca Stevens is a great writer, an Episcopal priest with a radical faith and mature social conscience and she's got a truly amazing story.  Many people have been waiting for this major book for quite a while. She helps us see God alive and well in the very nitty gritty, even the sensuous; how many books, after all,  quote the Book of Common Prayer and includes recipes?  I think this is the sort of faith journey Bell would like, and you will too. You will be encouraged with this narrative and you'll want to share it with others.

Ffaith i.jpgaith Interrupted: A Spiritual Journey  Eric Lax  (Knopf) $26.00  This is the sort of mature thing that anybody interested in learning about newer ways people are leaving or coming to faith, or thinking about God in smart, fresh ways, should know. It is very perceptive and a well-crafted memoir.  Many spiritual memoirs these days are either slight, new agey and esoteric, or they are mostly evangelical (some wonderfully written, others less so.)  Lax's story is neither of these and it is, by all accounts, a remarkably written, prestigious book, pondering the biggest things in ways that are interesting and sad.  It is published by one of the classiest of New York publishing houses, and carries endorsements from the likes of Elie Wiesel and Jack Miles. Some have called it "luminous" and while it is mostly about loss of faith and an unfinished story of doubt and trials, it glows and shimmers with beautiful sentences and profound ruminations. Karen Armstrong says it is "poignant, sensitive, a thoughtful memoir that illuminates the complexity of the phenomenon that we call faith and delineates its flow and ebb."  Mr. Lux, by the way, wrote an New York Times best-selling book on Woody Allen.  Who else quotes Woody alongside Augustine, Aquinas, and Anselm?  I'm surprised this book isn't better known.

Ssensible shoes.jpgensible Shoes: A Story About the Spiritual Journey  Sharon Garlough Brown (IVP/Crescendo) $18.00  In his new book, Rob Bell's view of God is not a distant deity, let alone  a distant one that is out to get you. God is near and gracious, alive, even in the hard times.  In this amazing new book -- a novel about Christian spirituality! -- four very different women met up at a Catholic monastery, while attending a retreat there.  They learn about spiritual disciplines and how we are formed in the ways of Jesus by these classic practices, but more, they learn to relate as honest friends on a journey together.  Hannah, Meg, Mara, and Charissa are the four women whose lives and longings unfold in this well told story. It is a perfect introduction -- or window into -- the ways in which there is a deep hunger for authentic spirituality these days.  Bell, of course, talks about this (as does Diana Butler Bass, whose exploration of spirituality outside conventional churches -- Christianity After Religion  -- is now available in paperback!) and so if you want to explore more of where all this God-is-Near talk might lead, check out this grand, great story.  Jana Riess, whose hilariously honest memoir, Flunking Sainthood is itself a great example of how to be honest and real about this stuff, writes that Sensible Shoes "provides a way for readers to vicariously dip into deep spiritual practices through the realistic struggles and joys of four women. Through emotionally resonant characters (it) encourages us to communicate with God in new ways, broadening our spiritual journey one step at a time." Ms Brown, by the way, is a pastor and spiritual director in the Evangelical Covenant Church, with a M.Div from Princeton.  Check out the book club resources at www.sensibleshoesclub.com and get some friends together.

Nno arg for god.jpgo Argument for God: Going Beyond Reason in Conversations About Faith  John Wilkinson (IVP) $15.00  Okay, get this.  This guy works at a high-energy but pretty conservative evangelical mega-church church and teaches as an adjunct at Lancaster Bible College.  Not usually the sort of context for deconstructing rationalism and pondering how (as Scot McKnight put it) "cock-sure confidence is both admirable and annoying."  You know that Rob Bell replies nicely to the new atheists a bit in his What We Talk About When We Talk About God and he exposes the shallowness of naturalistic materialism. But he also touts mystery and "weirdness" in everything from cell biology to black holes and string theory. Nice!  So when Wilkinson says that the odd irrationality of faith is its greatest asset, because rationalism itself sets artificial limits on all that we know, well, it sounds a bit like Bell.  Logic alone cannot make us believers, and I like how McKnight calls this "a wonderful post-apologetics apologetic for an authentic faith." This is fascinating.

Tmyth of certain.jpghe Myth of Certainty: The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment Daniel Taylor (IVP) $15.00  I was more than perplexed when one well respected blogger applauded a review of Bell's new book that took Bell to task for not offering enough certainty, and pulled the sophomoric tautology saying that Bell seems certain about his claim that much is uncertain.  That little skewering is maybe good for scoring points in a bull session debate in the dorm after a couple of Red Bulls, but frankly is not all that helpful or important.  This old book cuts through the foolishness, reflecting maturely and wisely about what we can know and what we can't and how one knows the difference. There is a risk to faith, to commitment, and we are called to be "reflective" about it all. I love this, and think Taylor, who has continued to write great books, is right.  Publisher's Weekly called it "splendid" and poet Luci Shaw said "I recognize myself on every page." Bash Bell if you must, but, regarding this aspect of his views at least, after you read this good book you'll feel embarrassed for having done so.

Ttruth speaks to power Brueggy.pngruth Speaks to Power: The Counter-cultural Nature of Scripture  Walter Brueggemann (Westminster/John Knox) $17.00  What can I say.  There is maybe no more influential Bible scholar in our time, and it is clear that this unnerving message of how the Bible is subversive -- a counter-narrative to the powers that be -- has been important to Bell. Here, the endlessly working Bruggemann looks at a few key Bible stories, and unpacks them to surprising effect, by doing a close, political reading he comes up with some very compelling insights. He invites readers (as the back cover puts it) "into this thick complexity of textual reading, where the authority of power is undermined in cunning and compelling ways.  He insists that we are -- as readers and interpreters -- always contestants for truth." Right on.  I love his phrases such as when he asserts that the Bible presents "a sustained contestation" over truth.  Whether Bell stands in this Brueggemann-esque tradition of prophetic imagination, but this is a good example of how it works.

If you don't like Bell's reading of the Bible, I dare you to grapple with a couple of these chapters and come to see how the Scriptures can be read in closer more imaginative ways that is often done.  If you do appreciate the seriously faith-based approach that isn't fundamentalist, again, you will appreciate the exciting vistas this lover of Scripture can open.  This is a great book, quintessential B-mann.

Jj the k.jpgesus the King: Understanding the Life and Death of the Son of God  Timothy Keller (Riverhead Books) $16.00  The earlier title of this when it was in hardback was Kings Cross.  It is now renamed and in a paperback that feels perfect in the hand. I suppose that Keller disapproves of Bell, and that I'd be on thin ice trying to link What We Think About... with the renowned pastor of Redeemer in NYC. But, no matter.  If you like Bell and want to rethink God and life and faith, you simply have to be grounded in the story of Jesus.  Bell himself says that clearly -- Christ's Kingdom coming as new creation is the narrative that captures our imaginations, no?  So, ya want to follow in the way of Jesus, because His love wins? Do it. Study up. Learn to desire Christ's reign, showing His grace. There are a dozen good books that came out in the last few years about the King and his cross.  This is a straight-arrow, very well-written study of Mark and we recommend it to one and all.

Wwonderstuck.jpgonder Struck: Awaken to the Nearness of God  Margaret Feinberg (Worthy) $14.99  In the new book, Mr. Bell makes a big deal in his idiosyncratic style that God is awesome. The world is crazy-awesome, too.  Maybe it does takes his paragraph long run-on poetic sentences with lots of spaces between the lines to give us space to get it, to even begin to get it -- there is something sublime about the really real, and God surely is in this place!  Okay.  He nails it, and if somebody didn't trot out the screwy accusation of pantheism, maybe he wasn't capturing adequately the wondrous, radical way God is near (as the Bible tells us, upholding all things by His Word, which itself speaks to us.) And, sure enough, Bell has been accused of pantheism, even though he says he's not falling for that age-old heresy.  But, granted, he comes close -- God is so near, so very, very close, all the day, everywhere. Is there anywhere, the Psalmist asks, where we can go where God is not?  The very stuff of creation reveals God and God's intentions to us -- Calvin Seerveld in a meditation on Psalm 19 in the first chapter of Rainbows for the Fallen World calls it "God's glossolalia." So, Bell reminds us of how great the world is, and how God is near it all and why we should pay attention.

Do you really know that?  My, my, if not, then you need this wonderful, evocative, beautiful book -- at once chatty and majestic -- by a woman who knows God intimately, loves the Scriptures (she "turns exegesis into an art" says Ed Stetzer), and is awestruck by God's very holy presence.  The first chapter is about the auraora borealis and hooked me the first time I read it. (I've read most of this book twice, now!) Margaret is filled with the Holy Spirit in ways that, it seems, have given her new eyes to see -- really see --  the wonder all around.  Is this a book about being struck by the wonder of creation? Or the wonder of our Creator-God and beloved Redeemer?  Yes!  Yes to both!  It is a moving book that will teach you how to know God and how to appreciate creation. It will get under your skin. (Bob Goff says "you can't read this book and remain the same.") The famous Jewish theologian, Bible scholar and peace activist, Abraham Heschel, once famously described his prayer by saying "I asked for wonder!"  This popular writer, who has been through quite a lot, as she shares in this book full of stories from her own quite interesting life, has too.  As Nancy Ortberg puts it, "Margaret recenters wonder at the heart of our relationship with God with seismic results. This book shook my soul awake and made it impossible for me to continue following a God of my own design."  Have you (as Feinberg puts it) "misplaced marvel"? Do you need God to wake you up? That is surely what is behind much of the attraction to What We Talk About When... This joyful read can help. By the way, there is a great 30-day guide in the back, too, which will help you process the material. And a soundtrack.  Go, go Margaret!

Bbreaking old rhythms.jpgreaking Old Rhythms: Answering the Call of a Creative God  Amena Brown (IVP/Crescendo) $15.00  Bell is edgy and hip but he isn't just trying to be cool when he talks about God the creator as being active and creative.  We are made in God's own image so humans, too, are active, creative beings. (And, as he points out, we live in an visual era, where aesthetics and design and the environment matter.)  This recent book by hip hop spoken word poet Amena Brown isn't a treatise on the arts, let alone dance, but it does play with that image and metaphor. (Michael Gungor the singer-song writer and worship musician says "Amena Brown uses words to fill the soul like music.") She clearly is a gifted wordsmith, a young woman of color, poet, speaker, and organizer. She explains to us in helpful ways that God is love, and that God's love carries us beyond our rhythms into a fuller, more fulfilling life. But that is just the beginning -- she invites us to dance, sing, clap, breathe, live. We can so this! As the exciting communicator and author Jo Saxton says -- "Breaking Old Rhythms reminds us of God's passion to rewrite the soundtracks of our lives with faithful, redemptive love. Warm, poignant and deeply soulful, Amena Brown invites us into her story, showing us how to let god and embrace God. Spoken word, indeed."  Hey, she has 25 songs listed in the back, too, that have helped her break old rhythms. For men or women who want to experience fresh ways of knowing God and living into God's work in the world, this is a gem.

Ffour views on divine prov.jpgour Views on Divine Providence  edited by Stanley Gundry (Zondervan) $19.99  I am sure you are aware at how complex this topic is, and that while Bell didn't exactly weigh in on this, it has to come up in any conversation about God, or what the Bible shows us about God.  Is God sovereign? What does that mean? Are all things superintended by Divine Providence? Here are four very interesting positions, each offered and then critiqued by the other three contributors. Paul Kjoss Helseth believes that the Bible teaches that "God Causes All Things" and William Lane Craig believes that "God Directs All Things." The third chapter is by Ron Highfield, and his position is that "God Controls by Liberating" and Gregory Boyd posits that "God Limits His Control." These Counterpoints books by Zondervan (some other publishers do them, too) give us splendid ways to learn, to hear the various views and to wrestle with the rebuttals and critiques. This is like a seminary class, for a couple of bucks. Sure Bell has stirred the pot a bit.  Ha, but his brief book, nice as it is, offers, on this topic, mostly kid's stuff, though. This offers sustained and serious debate. Join in and try to determine what you believe. From election to theodicy to knowing how to pray and what to say during times of grief or discernment, this matters. Sure, there are deep mysteries here, but this book explores the sovereignty of God in important ways.

TThree_Free_Sins.jpghree Free Sins: God's Not Mad At You  Steve Brown (Howard) $14.99  It is understandable, I guess, when some people accuse Rob Bell of being theologically liberal. Perhaps he is.  But this fine book is written by a doctrinally conservative, impeccably evangelical Reformed elder statesman.  He was a pastor for 25 years and is Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Reformed Theological Seminary.  He's written tons of books (and runs one crazy-wild, upbeat syndicated talk show called Steve Brown, Unlimited that proves that while he is doctrinally stuffy, he's also open-minded, unflappable, and very engaging.) The subtitle of this says "The Reason We're So Bad Is That We're Trying So Hard to Be Good."  Let that sink in! (Any Lutheran readers out there? You get that, eh?)  This book is funny, powerful, and although Bell is considered suspect when he says stuff like this, Brown rightfully gets a hearing because he is well grounded in very solid theology and has real gospel-centered pastoral concerns.  I can't say enough about this great book. If you don't like Bell, please read it.  If you do like Bell, please read it.

Ssurprised by meaning.jpgurprised By Meaning: Science, Faith, and How We Make Sense of Things Alister McGrath (Westminster/John Knox) $17.00 Alister McGrath is one of the most respected and prolific theological writers of  our time (and his new bio of C.S. Lewis, btw, is getting rave reviews!) His first PhD was in the sciences although he is now a teacher of theology at the prestigious King's College in London. He has written widely in theology, cultural studies, apologetics, church history, spirituality, and science. This recent one is such a vital, useful work because he is asking something Rob Bell approaches -- how do we seek, name, and construe meaning? What is the role of religion in a scientific/technological culture? What can we know, and what is God like, given what we know?  Catholic scientist John Haught of Georgetown writes "McGrath provides a crisp, readable, and deeply personal witness to Christian faith in an age of science... Those who have been taken captive by the extravagant claims of Richard Dawkins will find here a fresh and reasonable alternative."  As you know, this is part of the urgency of Bell's project and those "taken captive" are part of his intended audience.  This goes deeper and could be even more helpful.

Sscience and its limits.jpgcience & Its Limits: The Natural Sciences in Christian Perspective  Del Ratzsch (IVP) $18.00  As you hopefully recall, I mostly raved about how Rob Bell, in What We Talk About When We Talk About God, does a very enjoyable take-down of the contemporary gods of scientism, his invitation to realize that we live in a perplexing world that surely cannot be described solely in secular, scientific terms.  Rejecting a faith/science conflict, but also rejecting reductionistic scientism, he nicely hints at what I can only call a philosophy of science.  Okay, there, I said it. This is, in my opinion, the best introduction to that important topic, the philosophy of science.  Alvin Plantinga, whose heavy weight Oxford University Press book on this topic (Where the Conflict Really Lies) says of this one that "Ratzsch is eminently successful."  Professor Ratzsch is also the author of The Battle  for Beginnings: Why Neither Side is Winning the Creation-Evolution Debate (IVP.) If you were taken by Bell's Everything Is Spiritual DVD and especially if you were struck by his exciting teaching about science and scientism, you have to go further.  Read this. 

Ppermission granted.jpgermission Granted (and other thoughts on living graciously among sinners and saints) Margot Starbuck (Baker) $14.99  You should know that I have a little fan-crush on this gal, and Beth and I have hosted her in Dallastown where she did a fabulous job speaking and reading from her first two books.  She's a feisty writer and at times exceptionally moving. (Her memoir The Girl In The Orange Dress is a must-read!) Starbuck a funny speaker, an insightful leader, and a hippy-ish leader-ish of the Presby-emergent sort. Or something like that.  She is a grand wordsmith and can tell a story like nobody's business. And she is passionate about serving Jesus in the guise of others. This new book tries to grant us permission to lighten up, to love everybody, to cross over and reach out and find ourselves with new friends who maybe aren't in our little Christian circle.  Her previous book accomplished this fantastically -- we raved about Small Things With Great Love (IVP) and this more or less keeps going. And keeps us going.  We don't just love the poor and hurting and needy, we must reach out to those who are excluded and judged and despised. It is, as you can surmise, a book about grace.  Holy-moley, this is powerful, energetic, enjoyable (and convicting.) We need these kinds of books that help us live into this vision of sharing God's love with others, becoming the sort of people we know our Lord wants us to be, kind and good.  We really need to know what graciousness looks like. Margot is a godsend with her tales and reports from the journey.  Do I need to tell you that this is a good part of Rob Bell's vision, that his book points us towards this?  I really don't know exactly what Rob believes and I don't know what Margot would say about it, but if you are a fan of the kind of God Bell describes in What We Talk About... you will love this guidebook to taking steps towards living it out.  If you are suspicious of some grand re-think of the attributes of God, why not just read this? See what happens. Learn to love others like Christ, reaching out to those excluded, showing mercy.  God will be there, I promise.  Margot is a sure guide. Maybe this is what we should talk about when we talk about God.

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March 24, 2013

Thank God It's Thursday by William Willimon ON SALE

Ithank god its thursday.jpg know it is a bit late, but I want to commend the most recent book by United Methodist author, preacher,  scholar, Bishop William Willimon.  Thank God It's Thursday: Encountering Jesus at the Lord's Table As If for the Last Time  (Abingdon; $13.99) is a great read, interesting and helpful. Some of it is just fantastic and, I'll admit it it had me at the first sentence: "It's odd, even for the odd gospel of John."

In a colorfully imagined dialogue of Jesus and Lazarus, describing a dinner with Mary and Martha in John 12, it is noted as if in passing that Lazarus "whom he had just raised from the dead" was seated for dinner.  Willimon quips, "Lazarus whom he had just raised from the dead? Are you kidding?"

Willimon continues,

Imagine being seated at that dinner table: "You know our rabbi, Jesus, don't you?  And seated next to him is our brother Lazarus, who died last week. Thanks to Jesus, he's back among the living. No telltale grave stench, even. Please make yourself comfortable between them.

Settling uneasily in your seat, just being polite, you ask the table companion on your right, "Had a good week?"

Your fellow dinner guest replies, "Well, I was sick unto death, my sisters were frantic with worry, then I  died, was entombed  for  three days, wrapped like a mummy.  Jesus graciously stopped by the cemetery, shouted, 'Lazarus, come out!' and raised  me from the dead just in time for my sister's dinner party. How was your week?"

The guest  to your left, the young rabbi, says, "Unfortunately, no sooner had I raised Lazarus than my enemies vowed  to kill me. I give myself no more than a week before they succeed."

Where are we? Welcome to the wonderfully weird world of the Gospel of John and the holiest week of the church's year.  And welcome to the truth about what God in Jesus Christ is up to in the world. God isn't just good and great; God is on the move toward us. Jesus joins us at the table, and  whenever Jesus shows up, hold on to your hat; corpses rise from the dead,and we are shocked that God  is more active than we imagined. The predictable, dull world  is rendered strange, and even at a meal, Jesus, though unarmed, is extremely dangerous.

And then, this, sort of a preview of the ever-interesting topic of this fabulous book:

In intensifying his whole ministry at a meal, Jesus leads us into a world that is thick with subtle, secret meaning. A meal in which a piece  of bread is called "my body broken for you," a cup of wine designated as "my blood shed for you," is almost too rich a metaphorical feast. We can spend a lifetime attempting to plumb the depths of such a mystery and never exhaust, much less consume, the meaning. This book on Maundy Thursday's mysteries is meant  to increase your enjoyment of this holy mystery rather than merely explain it.

Willimon wrote decades ago a book that is still one of my very favorites on the last supper, called Sunday Dinner: The Lord's Supper and the Christian Life (Abingdon; $14.00) and it remains a great study book for small groups, a great refresher for pastors or elders. More recently, he did an good book on the last words of Jesus from the Cross called Thank God It's Friday: Encountering the Seven Last Words from the Cross (Abingdon; $14.00).  I guess this one is sort of a follow up to both.

In a few rich paragraphs, Willimon tells of his love for the "luxuriant figurative world" of the gospel of John where few things are as they first appear. "In heaps of symbols, metaphors, similes, and images, John teaches us how to read the world as Christians, gradually, sign by sing, leading us into a reality we might have missed without John's words."

Augustine, you may recall, was  taught by his teacher Ambrose, how to read the Bible well, and as he learned to do this, he became a Christian leader. We must work and pray, using reason and imagination, to grow into this, too.   As Willimon writes, "God's incarnation, Jesus' act of redemption, our grand reconciliation  -- all these weighty, true, but unfathomable mysteries are on the table on Thursday."

So, in this easy to read, creatively written, but exegetically thoughtful study, we really are invited to the table, to the table where God's love is shown, and we are invited -- and challenged -- to be a part of it all.

Here is another excerpt, that will give you a sense of what is going on in this fine study.

Feet are literally the lowest, earthiest part of the body.  "To put under the feet" was a humiliating gesture of the victor over the vanquished. (Ps. 8:6)  In the ancient world, feet got dirty on dusty roads (Mark 6:11).  Washing a guest's feet was an act of highest hospitality (Genesis 18:4; Luke 7:44).  Moses removed his shoes in a holy place in order not to defile (Ex. 3:5).  To "fall at the feet" of someone is an act of humility and self-abasement (1 Sam. 25:24; Mk. 5:22).[1]  Just a few days before Maundy Thursday Mary anointed Jesus' feet (Jn. 12:1-8).
 
It's a touching gesture, washing of feet.  It's nice to see the Pope kneel and wash the feet of a young priest Maundy Thursday at the Vatican.[2]  But when Jesus arrives at the feet of Judas, I react with revulsion.  Amid all of Jesus' high sounding and loving words at the table, I almost forgot.  At the table with the Twelve, there was Judas who a short time from now will by a kiss send Jesus off to a diabolical death.

In scripture, vanquished enemies are put under the victors' feet (Josh. 10:24; Mal. 4:3).  Here at table, Jesus does a shocking reversal, placing himself under the feet of his worst enemy who also happens to be one of his good friends.

How much easier this gesture if it had been offered to the rest of the Twelve but not to Judas, if Jesus had drawn the line between the passive acquiesce with evil of the Eleven and the active betrayal of Judas.  At least the others got not a dime from their disloyalty of their master.  We wish that Jesus had waited until Judas made his exit before Jesus knelt and washed his disciples' feet.

No, there's Jesus tenderly caressing the feet of Judas as if he were the Beloved Disciple at his bosom.  Judas will shortly use those same feet to walk from the meal to sell out his Savior.  Is the foot washing John's version of Jesus' abrasive command to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44)?   Or it's John's way of having Jesus say, as he says elsewhere, "I've come to seek and to save the lost"? (Luke 15)  How much easier for us, the remaining Eleven, if Jesus had not given his life (only) for sinners and if he had not stooped down and lovingly washed the feet of Judas Iscariot.

When the Alabama legislature passed a law that penalized our citizens for giving aid, comfort, food, housing, jobs or transportation to undocumented immigrants, many churches of Alabama knew that the immigration law as an attack upon our Christ-assigned work.
As I argued with the governor (and a retired Methodist pastor turned politician who shamelessly defended the law), "Unfortunately, Jesus doesn't allow his people choose between the deserving and the undeserving poor, the documented and the undocumented homeless and hungry.  He commands us actively to love all those in need."

Some legislators replied, "But these people are illegal.  The church shouldn't be aiding and abetting law breakers."

Hey, before Jesus Christ, so far as our relationship to God was concerned, we were all illegal!  His New Covenant, given at table, documented a bunch of illicit sinners as God's beloved.  At the time I was dooking it out with our right wing, ill-advised Governor I didn't think about this Judas-foot-washing episode from John 13, but I wish I had.  If Jesus had reason to wash Judas' feet, in effect aiding and abetting his own murderer, harboring the worst of criminals at his own table, well, he'll wash anybody's feet.  Anybody's -- even mine, even the Governor's, even yours, no matter where your dirty feet have taken you.

Judas receives more attention (13:1-30) than any other person in the story other than Jesus.  Is this a warning to contemporary disciples?  Thus that great Catholic apologist for the faith, G. K. Chesterton dared to call Judas the very first Christian: "Judas Iscariot was one of the very earliest of all possible early Christians.  And the whole point about him was that his hand was in the same dish; the traitor is always a friend, or he could never be a foe."[3]  Sorry, if your idea of "Christian" is someone who has overcome the problem of sin and now sits at Jesus' table with clean hands and a spotless conscience.  Watch Jesus wash Judas' feet and repeat after me: Jesus Christ came to seek and to save sinners, only sinners.

If Judas can be thought of as the first Christian, then that also makes this supper our earliest glimpse of the church.

We can send this out right away if you want, and this week we'll sell it at just $10.00.

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March 31, 2013

Resurrectionary Reading -- and a free book offer (this week only.)

One of my very dear friends, a leader and author I respect very much, is Steve Garber, author of Fabric of Faithfulness: Weaving Together Belief and Behavior (IVP; $16.00) an eloquent, serious, mature work, about how to keep a radical, wholistic faith alive beyond the idealism of young adulthood and over the longer haul of one's life. In recent years Steve has called together a team of people to work together in what he calls the Washington Institute on Faith, Vocation, and Culture.  He has been working with authors like Amy Sherman -- Steve has a great afterword in her Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP; $16.00 ) and Tom Nelson, who wrote Work Matters: Connecting Sunday Worship to Monday Work (Crossway; $15.99) and many other good folks.  They help churches, seminaries, colleges, and para-church groups equip ordinary folks take up their callings in the world, with a sense that vocation is "essential, not incidental, to the missio dei."

I was delighted when he asked me to write a piece for their website on the relationship between reading and the resurrection.  I suspect he liked the alliteration, but he also knows that, as I try to spell out below, the cross and resurrection have vast, all-of-life implications. In many ways, this is the raison d'etre for our bookstore, to provide resources as we talk about these things.

So, for this Easter BookNotes post, I'd like to share the piece which I wrote for the Washington Institute, which they graciously published last week.  First I spell out the biggest picture I can of the implications of redemption -- think N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (HarperOne) or Al Wolter's Creation Regained: The Biblical Basis for a Reformational Worldview (Eerdmans) or even the recent, profound work of James K.A. Smith Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom (Baker Academic.)  Nearer the end of my essay, I mention the need for what I call "resurrectionary research" and suggest a strategic plan of resurrectionary reading groups.  I cite one small booklet, one that in very helpful ways reminds us of this missional vision of being life-long learners, and gives some guidelines for developing the mind of Christ and how to use books as tools to help be better fit for God's Kingdom in this post-Chrisitan culture. The book is Your Minds Mission by Greg Jao (IVP; $4.00.) Now is a prefect time to read it. Let me tell you why. 

Our offer to give you one for free is explained at the end. Enjoy.


icon-jesus-christ1.jpgPoland, 1984. "Christ is risen!" As the cry went out, the crowd of mostly Catholic trade unionists shouted back with confidence "He is risen indeed!" Not unusual for a resurrection service, the cadence of the call and response echoing centuries of proclamation and hope. Yet, as this crowd understood, such public proclamation was pregnant with possibility -- revolutionary, even.  Soon, the dictatorial regime of communist Poland fell to non-violent protestors, Solidarity workers, alternative civic organizations, all swarming the streets inspired by the hope of the gospel, the truth of Christ's goodness unleashed in the world. Many of those history-makers understood the vast implications of Christ's bursting forth from the empty tomb.  We might borrow an image from musician Bruce Cockburn's Santiago Dawn, which tells of the Christian hope that drovesprout-makes-the-way-through-asphalt-on-city-road.jpg peaceful protestors to resist the junta in 1980's Chile, the people "rising like grass through cement."  Indeed, in every hemisphere and continent the good news of Christ's resurrection has supplied courage for those resisting injustice.

For many the resurrection is a vindication of the belief that through Christ and his cross, God forgives our sins and we are reconciled with Him. This is gloriously true!  Yet, we might ponder these brave revolutionaries resisting totalitarianism, inspired by Easter; why did their belief in Christ's resurrection cause them to take on dictators?

The answer is endlessly provocative: they realized that Christ's resurrection is more than a final touch on the process that assures us of salvation but also a socio-political event. The Roman regime had locked Christ in his tomb, secured with a draconian royal seal and armed guards.  Easter's uprising broke the Imperial seal and in doing so broke the power of all repressive forces.

all things re-.jpgThis aspect of the Easter morning narrative includes vivid anti-empire imagery, suggesting that Christ's sacrificial death accomplished more than the forgiveness of solitary sins.  The gospel's implications are broader: Christ does more than show mercy, but also transforms all of life. His resurrection revokes the power of personal sin and systemic evil, inner disorder and corporate dysfunction. Christ is victorious over death as it is writ large over a cursed creation.  Colossians 2:15 exclaims that Christ has disarmed even the "principalities and powers" by triumphing over them. Romans 8 reminds us that the entire creation has been groaning, oppressed. The visionary of Revelation promises "all things new" (the "all things" an echo of the early praise chorus of Colossians 1.)  A core New Testament conviction concerning the meaning of Christ's bodily resurrection is that Christ rules over this material world, across all aspects of life, in every sphere of culture, and that His new regime is coming "On Earth as it is in Heaven."

The resurrection is the central reality of human history, the truest truth that upsets idols and ugliness, defeats disorder and disaster. This means that in the living Christ there can be a restoration of order, rightness, shalom.  God's Kingdom is best understood as a renewal of the good but fallen creation.  Christ is King of His creation, and those united in His death, resurrection and reign are called to live into this shalom. The distorted ways of the broken culture are replaced, as we - like grass through cement - bring forth healing examples of new life. From sustainable economics to meaningful aesthetics, from dignified labor to trusting families, we imagine and then work to create hospitable neighborhoods, holistic health care systems, wise schools, responsible engineering; we explore all the implications of the resurrected life in a creation that is being restored.  The deathly Imperial seal lays broken, hurt is healed, God's life-giving Spirit is loose in the world, ambassadors of His holy rescue plan scattered like salt, like leaven, like light.

Ahh, but here is the rub.  To announce socially-constructive, culturally-relevant, Biblically-directed new life, we must necessarily ask what it looks like to embody this great good news.  Christ's victory extends "far as the curse is found" (as we sang in promissory hope during Christmastide) but what in the world do we do about it?

One of the answers--besides gathering regularly to announce through Word and sacrament the truth of Death's defeat in Christ's resurrection--is to read, and to read seriously.

reading painting.jpgIf we are to do more than be "hearers" of the resurrection news, but are to embody it as good citizens of God's movement, we must unlearn a lot of the old ways and relearn even more.  Our way of life in the world is informed considerably by the ideas that we hold, which is why the Bible calls for the "renewal of our minds."  We are formed as new creatures by Word and worship, but also by study.  If Christ is bringing newness to all of life, then we must study all of life.  Christian people, God's vanguard of newness, must think well about "every square inch" of our lives, and should read and learn and talk about it all.  Where should we shop? What parenting styles might we embrace? What do we think about gender assumptions, how has racism distorted our attitudes and relationships, can we possibly have Christ-like holiness amidst sexualized media? What sort of entertainments are most renewing?  How do we fruitfully embrace technology, with whom should we live, for whom should we vote, how do we think about are careers and callings?

If Christ is risen and brings renewal to all of life, and we are to be agents of reconciliation in all of life - well, we've got work to do.

The printed page has long been a tool of the trade for those wanting to learn.  Study has longbook pages.jpg been considered a spiritual discipline for those wanting to be formed into the ways of Christ. Reading widely is not only a mark of a learned person, but often of those who are the most robust, the truest lovers of life. There is a reason that nearly every book on leadership tells us to explore the world of books, to ask our mentors what to read, to commit ourselves to more rigorous reading habits.

Those of us who are swept up into Christ's agenda of bringing newness might do well to step back from public proposals and pontificating, instead committing ourselves to a season of what might be called resurrectionary research. Given that Christ is risen, what should we think about the nature of our culture (its worst idols and greatest dysfunctions; its best graces and most normative strengths?) What are the most pressing problems in our world, and what insights might come from the creation-regained worldview brought by Jesus the risen King?  Our habits of heart and the subsequent social architecture of our land must be transformed - what might the resurrection mean for that? All of this will demand considerable and concentrated thought. And we will have to be intentionally standing on the shoulders - by that, I mean reading the books of - those who have come before. Can we be agents of reformation by thinking deeply, offering well-informed glimpses of resurrection life?

Reading groups, lending libraries, study circles -- on-line and in living rooms -- will beyour minds mission.jpg important as we take up the task of reformulating our ideas and subsequent practices, discerning what it means to be agents of resurrected newness. We will have to think of learning as part of our mission.  Greg Jao has given us a phrase that helps us with this.  In a small book with big ideas he invites us to think about Your Mind's Mission (IVP.)  He writes,

Christian intellectual stewardship inevitably advances God's redemptive mission, as well as the acquisition of knowledge. When Christians engage a field of study's presuppositions and practices from a perspective shaped by the scriptural narrative and a biblical worldview, we reclaim the contested terrain of the academy in the same way that a gospel invitation reclaims souls of sinners...

Speaking to those with missions within higher education, he continues,

The university is not a polluted environment from which students and faculty must be rescued. Instead, the university is a valuable ecosystem of ideas and ideals, values and visions, skills and resources that must be renewed. We will beat swords into plowshares by consecrating ideas and art, technology and techniques toward human flourishing for the glory of God.

Of course, this is true for all of us, no matter where we find ourselves, or what vocations we have. As John Stott put it decades ago, "your mind matters."

If we do not ground our Christian proposals in studied conversation, shaped by habits of reading widely and deeply, we will not have substantive contributions to make, our ideas will be thin, our proposals less than adequately wise or fruitful. For the full force of resurrection power to shake the world we will need to do more than shout out the truth of the victory.  We will have to think through its implications, reading widely and deeply, unlearning and learning much, praying and working for the mind of Christ, so that we offer truly good news of healing and hope to the watching world.

There are implications to Resurrection.  One of them is that we must be readers.


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