Three Contenders for Book of the Year: Mouw, McLaren, and Walsh & Keesmat

I’ve been wanting to write this column for weeks — I am so excited to tell you about three new books. About each of these, extra sturdy exclamation points may be needed. Excitable words come to mind: spectacular, fabulous, thought-provoking, insightful! Yes! Yes! Yes!

I know what you’re thinking — " every month he raves about titles." I realize that I am often in high, used-car salesman mode in my enthusiasm for new books. Remember my review last summer of the hilarious Candyfreak? I would imagine you know there are bookfreaks, too. In fact, our store just acquired the much-touted A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel, and Sarah Nelson recently published So Many Books, So Little Time: A Year of Passionate Reading, and a similar but more highbrow diary of a year’s worth of pondering books just came out, entitled A Reading Diary: A Passionate Reader’s Reflections on a Year in Books.
A.J. Jacobs’ The Know It All: One Man’s Humble Quest To Become the Smartest Person in the World, is a great new title about the heroic quest o
f a guy working his way through Encyclopedia Britannica. And, now that I’m on a big ol’ digression: Seeing Past Z is a beautiful book by one of our favorite writers, Beth Kephard; the subtitle is Nurturing the Imagination in a Fast-Forward World, and it is not just about reading, but about teaching reading and writing to kids. What a wonderful bunch of bookfreaks we’ve found — authors who write about reading.

So: don’t blame me for being enthusiastic about new books. There are whole books about people’s love for books!

These three theology books are must-reads, I think, and they were (I’m not just using this for effect) hard to put down. I hope you find these three reviews helpful.

Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport: Making Connections in Today’s World by Richard Mouw (Zondervan, $14.99). This is by a writer I mention whenever he puts out a new book. A Presbyterian who previously taught philosophy at Calvin College, Mouw has for over a decade been in leadership, now as President, of Fuller Seminary, the nation’s largest (and most multiethic, by the way). Richard Mouw is able, more than any other author I know, to be both unashamedly who he is, clear about his own views and convictions, and at the same time open and ecumenical, even self-critical of his own heritage and perspective. He always seems eager to be understood, always civil and pleasant. Mouw has the gift of clarity and the grace of thinking things through in a manner that honors the process of authentic thoughtfulness. He questions, ponders, considers options, reflects on the implications of rejecting this view or adopting that on
e. He is a teacher at heart and makes learning and rethinking long-held beliefs feel natural.

Here, Mouw revisits the heart of Reformed faith, the claims about God’s sovereign grace that are sometimes called “the five points of Calvinism,” or TULIP. If you know what that stands for, this book will help you learn to talk about these five principles (generated at the Council of Dordt in 1618-1619) in ways that may be able to be understood amidst the postmodern and secularized voices of the 21st century (that is, the Vegas airport of the title). If you are less familiar with this five-point acronym which explains Reformed understandings of sin, God’s initiating election, the gracious predestination of the saved, God’s sustaining faithfulness to redeemed sinners and such, this book could be for you, too.

Mouw claims that he doesn’t mean it as a primer on these questions — other books do that. He suggests that it’s more about the application and expression of these controversial biblical doctrines that he is pondering. Still, even for the uninitiated, it is good, solid, clear-headed theology and so is very, very useful. Who doesn’t need to review the doctrines of the Cross, the nature of salvation, the importance of grace and how it works? And to what it should lead. With tongue only partly in cheek, Mouw suggests he is seeking a “kindler, gentler Calvinism.” It will be useful for those with strong convictions about this debate and those not yet very aware of it all.

Those that know Mouw know that he is a tireless advocate for fleshing out the distinctives of a Reformed doctrine and their implications for engaging the issues of the day. One earlier book, indeed, was called Uncommon Decency, which was about how to sustain civil discourse, being firmly Christian and graciously decent in public proclamations, disagreements, and advocacy. (This, by the way, would be a timely study in this season of acrimonious post-election fall-out.)

Another recent book of his about which we raved a year ago is on the notion of common grace, how Christians ought to give thanks to God for good gifts of creation — art, institutions, food, culture, science, sports, technology and such. As he often does, Mouw uses a hymn title for that book title: He Shines in All That’s Fair. And a few years ago, I thoroughly enjoyed his fair-minded assessment of what younger and more socially-engaged evangelicals might learn from fundamentalism in the well-written The Smell of the Sawdust, where he reflected on his conservative, faith-filled upbringing. Like I said, I think Mouw is a great thinker and a good writer. His books are worth having in your library.

Besides the TULIP question, Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport promotes a generous kind of Calvinism inspired by the revival and reformation of 19th century Holland and the pioneering public philosophy of Abraham Kuyper. Mouw reports that one reviewer christened him “Abraham Kuyper on Prozac.” This broad and public vision in some ways colors (I think brilliantly so) his take on the doctrines of the five points. Not wanting to water down Calvinian interpretations of Scripture, Mouw’s brief book ponders how best to construe it and how to say it.

The Las Vegas in the book’s title is a reference to a scene in an unpleasant film by disgruntled Calvinist filmmaker Paul Schrader, where a stodgy orthodox Calvinist recites the TULIP stuff to a young woman in the airport when she inquires about his faith. She obviously has never heard of such doctrines and is, to understate the matter, unconvinced. He, though, can do little more than re-state these grand but arcane details of the faith.

Mouw wonders what it would be like to replay that scene, developing a caring empathy for the woman, gaining a sense of her perspectives, needs and values in order to share the gospel in such a way that God’s grace and Christ’s Lordship would be found compelling.

There are other good books on evangelism, of course (see my column from August 2002), but none overtly ask how to make a Calvinist worldview and the core doctrines behind it accessible and vibrant and persuasive. Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport is a book I both enjoyed and from which I learned much. Old school, hardcore Calvinist or softer, broader Kuyperian — or neither — you will benefit from this book. We seriously recommend it.

A Generous Orthodoxy by Brian McLaren (Zondervan, $19.99). A broad-minded and broad-ranging, generous new “position paper” by the post-evangelical gatt-fly Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy has a chapter on Calvinism, but in his telling, it is closely linked to fundamentalism. McLaren tries earnestly to give it a generous spin, but it is my sense that he is not quite there (and would benefit from the good efforts of Rich Mouw). It is a fine chapter, but not brilliant. Some of the rest of the book is, though — a lot of it. Many of the chapters I have read twice. I am pretty darn excited about it and have been talking about it to anyone who will listen.

Take the forward. I howled when he noted, parenthetically, that he has an exuberant appreciation for the parentheses (not to mention the parenthetical thought). His obvious tip of the hat to the Lemony Snickett stuff — warning how dreadful all of this is and how a wise reader ought to consider a visit to the refund desk — was hilarious. He drably explains how this is an unfortunate book of dreary and confusing stuff (with too many parentheses). McLaren confesses with mock mea culpas of not being a trained theologian, being in an over-reaction mode when he is so critical of his own conservative evangelical background, that he may “have issues” and that he has written a book that is woefully incomplete. He warns you. It really is funny and a good way to start this unusual journey.

A Generous Orthodoxy is not only fun to read, it is important. Few Christian books have been as widely discussed in recent years as McLaren’s popular and controversial novels about a traditionally conservative evangelical pastor (read: modernist) who meets a New Kind of Christian (that is, a postmodernist, one supposes). The sequel, The Kind of Story We Find Ourselves In, is a “further adventures of” NKoC and is also provocative and much debated. The saga of these guys trying to forge a new vision for the church emerging in the new millennium are, keep in mind, novels, and it is uncertain what Brian himself thinks about many basic theological questions. He has written several other fascinating books– More Ready than You Realize on evangelism, The Church on the Other Side, and a helpful guide for seekers called Finding Faith. He was one of the conversation partners in the fine book I reviewed here in January, edited by his buddy Len Sweet, The Church in the Emerging Culture: Five Views. He travels hard working the lecture circuit, too, so many know of his work and have heard of his church and Web site.

Enter A Generous Orthodoxy, which I describe as his coming out book — here it is, folks, this is what I believe. I don’t know enough to say this, but it may be as straight up a doctrinal statement as we will get out of him, although he is involved in projects as diverse as more books for seekers, Scriptural commentaries and (who knows?) perhaps a third book in the NKoC series.

Not only is A Generous Orthodoxy a great read, it puts McLaren perhaps a bit more on the map in terms of the case for a reformulated and contextualized new millennial theology. Therefore, I suggest that it be widely read — working pastors, active Christian leaders, seminary professors, theology students and especially campus ministers or youth workers should consider this a must-have title, important to know about and vital to struggle with. Read and discuss with others the reviews you will be sure to see of it. Ask others what they think. Whether in an independent evangelical church or part of a mainline tradition, this is a very helpful reflection on theology and ministry and I suspect it will become well-known.

Happily, it is hard to put down, fun and interesting, clever and really thought-provoking. Even the graphics are great. Yes, it is critical, but we can be glad that this book is so, well, generous. I hope groups work on it together, studying, reflecting, living out the implications of its call to rethink some classic formulations and typical assumptions about life and faith.

Fun, important, generous. I hope you believe me. I can agree with suspicious readers, though, who wisely know that the bigger question isn’t the interest quotient, but the reliability of the claim to orthodoxy. Does the generous pronoun distract from the solid orthodoxy? Does it imply (as some may think) a liberal viewpoint that deconstructs the very claim to stand in the tradition of historic orthodoxy? Is the phrase, coined by post-liberal Hans Frei, an oxymoron?

Each reader will have to make up his or her own mind, of course, but I will weigh in with my view that those who deride McLaren for being less than orthodox or inadequately faithful are mistaken. Sure, A Generous Orthodoxy is provocative and eclectic. His creative and open-minded approach introduces tensions that he cannot resolve. As a pioneering work in “new kind of Christian” dogma, this stretches some boundaries and pushes some envelopes. It would be great to hear what the ever-careful Rich Mouw thought about this, since I am sure he would love the combination of these two rich words in the title. I know I don’t agree with everything Brian says, and I might wish for better emphasis on or clarification about some things. (But, truth be told, I just wrote that mostly because my inner editor suggested that if I didn’t, some good, orthodox friends might wonder about me. So there: I’ve voiced the obvious — McLaren doesn’t walk on water and may be in
over his head. What’s new?) I think the book is thick with insight, generative for friendly discussions and will be a redemptive blessing to many.

The big, quirky and good subtitle is really the table of contents. Here’s the full title and the skinny on the book: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/Calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.

A few quick notes: there is a sticker that comes on the book, noting that the publisher will take the book back if you don’t like it. We of course honor those stickers, so I invite you to consider this purchase, knowing that you can get your money back if you don’t have complete satisfaction. How’s that for a deal?

Second, the book is useful for seekers, and Brian hopes (and writes the book in such a way) that some not-yet-Christians join him in the journey to discover a new kind of mere Christianity. (He is in debt to Lewis in many chapters, by the way, so he ain’t all that new!) If you do book-reading with unchurched friends, this would be a good one, if they are even partially interested in Christian conviction.

Third, Generous O is a thoroughly Christ-centered book. In fact, the first chapter, “The Seven Jesuses I Have Known,” is brilliant. He is a serious follower of Christ, deeply in love with the Jesus of biblical revelation and eager to show the good (and sometimes bad) understandings and interpretations of Christ throughout church history.

Fourth, McLaren is uncommonly candid and fair. If you don’t know much about the traditions he is appropriating, this is a great way to start to learn. (Richard Foster’s more detailed and formal study of the habits and strengths of different Christian traditions is another good resource. See his Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith for a rather contemplative take on these streams.)

Lastly, the book is hopeful. Not a few of us have harbored serious misgivings about the state of the church, and McLaren the critic is also McLaren the lover. He cares not only about Jesus, but about God’s people. If he is trying here to forge a newer, multi-denominational approach, it is not just because his hip, postmodern schema embraces paradox (although it does). It is because McLaren really knows that, biblically speaking, these different theological movements have something valuable to teach us, insights that can nurture and nourish us, and that we need each other. We need not be so afraid, critical, uncooperative, judgmental. Insights from various corners of the Body of Christ may be helpful. Yet, despite their wisdom, they all need to be understood, proclaimed, tweaked a bit in the 21st century.

The title, A Generous Orthodoxy , is a perfect phrase for McLaren’s vision. May we all be more generous, more orthodox.

Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire by Brian J. Walsh & Sylvia C. Keesmaat (IVP, $22.00). The third book I want to promote is a title I have waiting to tell you bout for months. It will be of special interest to staff of the CCO, since The Transforming Vision has been one of the most important books in the history of our organization. I was an advanced reader for the publisher of this new one and feel as if I had a very small hand in it; Brian and Sylvia (who are married to each other, by the way) are dear friends, too, which I say in the spirit of full disclosure. I so admire their radically Christian thinking and faithful lifestyles and have prayed for and benefited from their work over the years.

Colossians Remixed is the long awaited commentary that Brian & Sylvia have poured themselves into for several years. Fans of Walsh’s work have seen early versions of some of this at his webpage. Others, knowing of their love for and deep insight into Holy Scripture (Sylvia got her Ph.D. under N.T. Wright and he often mentions her insight in his lectures), will not be surprised that they are doing a book of biblical scholarship. They have always maintained that a Christian way of life, a socially-transforming worldview, must be rooted in and shaped by the Bible. No legalistic or simplistic Biblicists, though, they are fully aware that living out of (into?) a biblical vision takes renewed, communal attention to complex matters of understanding the Bible in its original sociopolitical and religious context. And they know as well that we must engage the hugely contested questions a
bout interpretation.

Colossians Remixed is a book which reads the biblical text in context and analyzes the world — consumerism and the role of mass media, globalization, postmodernism, the massive reality of the suffering of the poor, the savaging of the land, contemporary angst and social disquiet, idolatries and ideologies — to create a living, experimental interpretation of the ancient text. They insist (and make the case persuasively) that this book of the Bible can nurture a subversive resistance to the forces of the idols of our time. In other words, it is significantly informative about the Bible and seriously but creatively committed to bold proclamation of the good news that emerges from the text.

When taken in by the vision of the Bible, and this epistle particularly, we find that we don’t have to live the way we do, we don’t have to go along with the values of the dominant culture, we can live out a spiritually-rich, countercultural way of life. This whole-life vision of the reign of God that they help us see comes from the whole flow of Scriptures and from that first century letter. They tell us we can, in the words of the poet Wendell Berry, “practice resurrection.” This is the kind of reading that will change forever the way you view the Bible. And this, of course, is a good thing. A very good thing.

Those who have read Brian’s four powerful sermons in Subversive Christianity (one delivered at the Pittsburgh Jubilee conference a few years back) will appreciate why Walsh and Keesmaat insist that we need a new understanding of the Bible, and why they feel such discontinuity between genuinely biblical faith and the ways of modern and postmodern culture. Themes of being in exile — expressed with more biblically potent texture, I think, than Hauerwas and Willimon’s Resident Aliens and more culturally-specific than Brueggeman, whose work on exile is fundamental — abound in Subversive . (How could it not? Much is taken from Jeremiah!) But, like that earlier book, in Remixed there is talk of hope, as well. We can dare to dream that things can be otherwise! God will bless and guide us into new and sacrificial ways. We can find habits and practices that enable us to deeply be guided by the biblical text. Thes
e themes pervade the Colossians study.

Still, it isn’t all vision and hope. They insist on a close and careful reading of the text, and they call us to pay attention to the Old Testament echoes which would surely have been implied by Rabbi Paul. They work hard to exegete responsibly. (Brian, in fact, told me he hopes that the debate that will surely be engendered by this book will be mostly about their work with the text of the epistle.) To help make their provocative case more clearly — that Colossians is a subversive tract inviting resistance to the Empires, Roman and American — they include another view in the book. That is, a guy comes around, his voice written in italics, who joins in from time to time to challenge and argue with the authors, pressing them on matters of their philosophical assumptions and their exegesis of the passages. This device is a stroke of genius (perhaps born of necessity as they’ve learned in years of conversations, teaching and leading retreats that it is not easy to get folks to un
derstand their Bibles in the political ways they are suggesting.) Their ongoing dialogue with this straight-arrow interlocutor is very helpful as they answer his good questions. In this, they serve the reader, anticipating some of the sidebars, tangents, and concerns that many may have.

Other voices show up in Colossians Remixed, voices of postmodern and post-Christian friends, students, and neighbors. These are folks who, importantly, are not fictional, and Brian and Sylvia pay attention to them. Besides being biblical scholars, worldview advocates, teachers, writers, social activists, home-schoolers, and cultural critics, they are evangelists. They want to “make disciples” and their missional perspective is evident. They want these alienated young adults and jaded postmodern disciples of Foucault and Derrida to hear and believe the gospel.

Like Brian McLaren and Richard Mouw, Walsh and Keesmaat truly want seekers to be found by God. They want a vibrant, reforming and healing way of life to be known. They want serious attention to be given to Bible study, and they long to see God’s people actually live out a counter-cultural and refreshing, healing, embodied witness — a city on a hill that cannot be hidden — that would engender deep conversation and make plausible the counter-intuitive claims of Christ. Such a community would find its place in the grand Story of the unfolding plan of God. Such a community would be hopeful that God intends to bring restoration and change, but would first need to struggle to be subversive of the dominant values/principles/assumptions. As is often said, the Hebrew prophets both denounced the idols and announced the plans of God. Colossians, explained and interpreted by Keesmaat and Walsh, does the same.

A book like this — serious, evocative, fresh, informative and formative — is right for our times. We are living in a time of Empire, a time, many have said, not dissimilar to the first century, AD. In this tragic year of our Lord, perhaps nothing could be more urgent than a rediscovery of the original power of these letters of Paul, which the church has declared to be God’s Word. Are they such to us? This book offers the challenge.

A final word on Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. I am not alone in raving about this book, they are not the only ones working out this kind of perspective, and for the record, I don’t gush over it just because I like them personally. Some of the best folks writing these days have added their support, which I trust you will take to mean that this is, indeed, a major contribution for those of us who love the Bible. Here are some blurbs from the back cover. (Yep, that’s me in there with all these big-wig scholars and important Kingdom people. Ha!) Thanks be to God.

Reviews & Endorsements for Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire:

"What would Paul say to contemporary Western culture? Well, it might just look like this. Walsh and Keesmaat have written one of the most creative and exciting books to emerge from the current interface of biblical, cultural and political studies. Bringing together serious historical study of Colossians and the urgent questions of our time, they entertain as well as educate with verve, wit and surprise as well as scholarship and in-depth cultural analysis. Paul recognized that living under a global empire posed particular challenges for Christians in the first century. This book compels us to engage with the equivalent questions we face in the twenty-first." —N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham and author of the multivolume work Christian Origins and the Question of God

"Brian and Sylvia are phenomenally wise, profoundly formed by their immersion in biblical language, astutely aware of the pains and anxieties of residents in postmodernity, and outstandingly alert to the dangers of enculturated Christianity. This is a brilliant book–using multimedia of imaginative stories, probing conversations, alternative readings. Their targums alone are more than worth the price of the book because they make the Bible come alive with its deepest referents to Israel , to the community at Colossae and to our world, caught as it is in the throes of the empire." —Marva J. Dawn, author of Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society and Powers, Weakness, and the Tabernacling of God

"Colossians Remixed is a book I’ve been waiting for eagerly; it’s a tasty sample of postmodern engagement with a biblical text. It will provide a fascinating and readable entry into Colossians–and deeper into the essential message of Jesus and Paul. And in the process, it will expose readers to evocative and challenging new ways of reading and interpreting both Scripture and our culture." —Brian D. McLaren, pastor and author of A New Kind of Christian

"In my nearly twenty-five years of book selling I have seen few books which can rival Colossians Remixed for its sheer Christian audacity, its deep desire to be faithful in reading the Word in light of the burning questions of our time. Readers will be sure to be stunned–pondering, reacting, struggling with this fresh take on Scripture, as they are led to good insights about how to live out a transforming discipleship. If this proposal is taken seriously, the Bible will be heard anew, lives will be changed, and God will be pleased." —Byron K. Borger, Hearts & Minds Bookstore, Dallastown, Pennsylvania

"After they did all of their exegetical homework, these authors decided to let the book of Colossians touch our lives in the contemporary world. Well, Colossians will never be the same again; neither will the reader. Whereas Colossians usually sits innocently at the edge of the New Testament, this book shows how it becomes front and center for readers amid an empire that manages all of globalization. The book makes clear what a difference there is when the text is given Spirit-led imagination." —Walter Brueggemann, Emeritus Professor of Old Testament, Columbia Theological Seminary

"Walsh and Keesmaat expertly bring the ancient world of Colossians and the contemporary world of North America crashing together, and the result is dynamite. Rich, provocative readings of Scripture combine with penetrating, trenchant analysis of culture. Insights from a plethora of sources (exegetes, philosophers, musicians) are expressed in a readable, conversational style. A culturally subversive ethic is persuasively put forward for Christ-followers in our age of empire. Not exactly a commentary, this book is much better. Colossians Remixed is an explosive tract for our times. Take up and read." —Steven Bouma-Prediger, Jacobson Professor of Religion, Hope College

"This book is a Molotov cocktail lobbed into the midst of contemporary biblical studies and the American empire. It is full of illuminating exegesis of Colossians, rooted in solid knowledge of the Old Testament background and the first-century Roman imperial context of the New Testament. Its most helpful–and controversial–feature is that it demonstrates how a faithful reading of Colossians addresses head-on our contemporary idolatry of consumerism and the postmodern suspicion of truth that characterizes our culture." —J. Richard Middleton, Associate Professor of Biblical Studies, Roberts Wesleyan College, Rochester, New York

"This creative and intellectually stimulating understanding of Colossians offers both a fresh reading of the letter in its first-century setting and a provocative attempt to challenge the cultural elites of the twenty-first century with Colossians’ worldview. Not all will agree with its hermeneutical approach or its political positions. Everyone, however, will benefit from thinking with the authors about the ways in which the church has become captive to the dominant culture and the ways in which the dominant culture has too quickly dismissed the church." —Frank Thielman, Presbyterian Professor of Divinity, Samford University

"A gripping, powerful and penetrating interpretation of Colossians for the third millennium! Based on responsible scholarship, enlivened by a discerning imagination and fired by commitment to Paul’s gospel, this reading of Colossians by Walsh and Keesmaat is an outstanding contribution to the church’s task of conceiving Christ rather than global consumerism as sovereign in our world. At the same time, it is a provocative stimulus to the church’s mission of living out that alternative sovereignty in a community of compassion resistant to the forces of coercion from within and without." — Andrew T. Lincoln, Portland Professor of New Testament, University of Gloucestershire