Talk about uneasiness and disorientation. Last week I experienced the first earthquake I ever felt and within a matter of days was battering down our hatches for what was to be the first hurricane we ever encountered. I was on the phone calling a few friends in NYC, inviting them to stay here, even as I realized that was probably more symbolic than useful. Why would somebody want to flee a dangerous hurricane zone to another, only lesser impacted region? Somehow it just felt good to be connected to others who were waiting it out, anxious, curious, glued to the TV, praying for others on the Eastern seaboard.
But what to pray? That God would avert the winds from those we know toward those we don’t know? From us, to them? Dare we praise God when our place seemed spared, giving God credit for that, only to find terrible damage done elsewhere? This stuff is a mystery and we dare not be glib. If you want to study this question–does God cause all things? Direct all things? Does God limit His own control?— the best resource came out just recently and shows several perspectives. It is called Four Views on Divine Providence (in the excellent Counterpoints series) edited by Stanley Gundry (Zondervan; $19.99.) It includes four views, and each author replies to the others, too. What a huge question, what a vexing matter, and what a fine collection of able scholars to argue their respective views. A lovely last concluding essays looks at the bigger picture, the areas where the authors agree and a bit about the strengths each view carries.
For a serious book that is more specifically about natural disasters and a creational theology, see Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters by Lutheran Old Testament scholar Terence E. Fretheim, (Baker Academic; $19.99.) I appreciate it because it not only is about the theodicy question, but starts with the givens of creation, and the goodness of creation. It may surprise you, challenge you, maybe comfort you. It is worth reading.
Here are a few blurbs about it.
There is no issue in contemporary faith more vexing than how we are to understand God’s will and action in the event of natural disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes, wildfires and floods. Fortunately for readers, there is no more reliable guide for thinking biblically about these issues than Terence Fretheim. In this thoughtful and compact volume, Fretheim helps us not only to see clearly our own created vulnerability but also to encounter biblical testimony to a God who becomes vulnerable with us. –Bruce C. Birch, Wesley Theological Seminary
Who better than Fretheim to take up the hard contemporary question concerning the destructive forces on exhibit in creation! The author has spent his life thinking about these issues and reading these old texts forward toward our time and place. He begins with the conviction of the goodness of God’s creation, and from there he launches into the dangers of reality and takes us with him. –Walter Brueggemann, Columbia Theological Seminary
Terence Fretheim explores the biblical materials to grapple with the devastation of natural disasters. He encourages readers to reconsider their traditional understanding of the relationship between God and suffering. I enthusiastically recommend Creation Untamed to all who want to be honest with the Bible and with life. –Tremper Longman III, Westmont College
Well, as I sent little notes to friends in the bad weather danger zones—not to mention to a friend whose father died in a plane crash, and another who had a re-occurrence of cancer—I invited them to know God’s presence. To rest in confidence of the deepest truths we know about the world. To be attentive to the living and reigning Christ. I believe in intercession and regular hope for miracles. Yet, with Irene churning up the coast, all I could muster was to recall that God was with us, nothing more.
I suppose that “with” may have been my operative word in part because it is important to my own heart. Knowing God’s presence and experiencing God’s daily graces seems most important so we might live wisely and glorify God in all things. Immanuel, God-with-us may be enough. But it is also because I had just finished a splendid book, a book called With by Skye Jethani (Nelson; $15.99.) It was an easy read, enjoyable and uplifting. And it taught me a lot, reminded me of much, and gave a new handle to discuss spirituality and discipleship. I think many H&M friends will want to get it. It is very nicely done and, importantly, it really is that helpful. Let me explain.
Skye Jethani is a good writer, has been involved in journalism and in public speaking in prestigious venues such as Christianity Today, Catalyst and Q. He is currently the managing editor of Leadership Journal. His earlier book was much discussed, critically reviewed, and we pushed it happily a year or so ago, although it wasn’t easy to describe. It was called The Divine Commodity: Discovering a Faith Beyond Consumer Christianity (Zondervan; $18.99) and it analyzed how late modern consumerism—an ideology of reducing things to commodity, things to be bought, claimed, owned, controlled, used up—influenced the way many of us view religion, God, church life (“church shopping”) and spirituality. Jethani is nearly brilliant in that meandering book, and many people found it both enjoyable and insightful. There are even 8 pages of full color plates of Van Gogh paintings that he uses to make his valuable, wise, provocative points. (Remember what Nouwen did for the story of the Prodigal Son by using Rembrandt? Jethani isn’t that contemplative and his Van Gogh ruminations are not utterly central to the book, but it is that sort of thing. Very effective.) Walter Brueggemann said of it, “This is as good a book on the pervasive power of consumerism as I have read.” Mark Batterson, pastor of National Community Church, predicted that “this book will challenge your assumptions in a way that will result in deeper-held convictions.” By using the Bible, church history and his own very contemporary narration (and a lot of well placed and sometimes surprising, wonderful, citations of great books and authors) it invited us to be liberated by surrender; by engaging in spiritual practices with holy imagination we can resist the world’s consumerist/marketing pull which has been distorting faith and church life for at the last few decades, at least. We can be free to know God truly when we stop making God into a commodity. This is a book that deserves to be known better than it is–it is beautifully written, very creative, expansive and very thoughtful.
I suspect that his new publisher worked hard to get this new book, With, a little less sweeping in its reach and a touch more focused, making it an easier book to describe and a bit easier to read. This is not to say it is less in
teresting or more shallow. With carries a subtitle “Reimagining the Way You Relate to God” and one doesn’t get more profound or urgent than that. In some ways it is a follow up to Divine Commodity, although it isn’t marketed that way.
The new book has two parts and the first part is fabulous—fairly obvious stuff, or at least it becomes so in his writerly hands. He discusses four traditional ways Christian people have approached their relationship with God. As you may guess, these four each have some grain of truth, perhaps, but are very fundamentally askew. Jethani shows why these common styles, styles that are common place and often presumed, need to be rejected and avoided. Does he step on toes? You betcha. Is he nice about it? Oh my, yes. This is not a jeremiad or angry book and in no way mocks these sub-Biblical spiritualities. He is firm. We need him to be. But he is pleasant and kind. As Jim Belcher writes, “Jethani convincingly diagnoses the reigning paradigms of life, with secular or religious, and shows how each one has captured some element of truth but in the end is deficient.”
What are the four failing ways? You will have to read the four chapters to get the full critique of each but he names them like this: Life Under God; Life Over God; Life From God; Life for God. Each one sounds good (well, the prosperity gospel of life “over” God seems pretty obviously inappropriate, but he cites well known authors who fall into this posture, and not just the obvious culprits.) Is it wrong to be “under God”? Don’t we agree that we should live our lives “from God”? And certainly I most often talk about serving God, as if we are living “for” God? You got a problem with that?
â€¨â€¨Yep, he does. And it made a lot of sense. It was, actually, the chapter that most moved me, even if the critique of “doing” for God has been said before. He tells about mentoring some evangelical college students who live in near despair and how he listens to their pain and it opens up the immense topic of experiencing God’s grace. That chapter is worth the price of the whole book, especially if you care about young adults.
The chapter describing life “from” God is a further exploration of the themes of consumerism and how capitalism has influenced even how we perceive things of the Spirit. It isn’t just a reiteration of The Divine Commodity, though, but carries that argument further, with great force and clarity.
And a problem with all of these less than appropriate paradigms is that they tend to inoculate us from the real gospel. All our God-talk and spiritual energies and our trying and religiosity just backfires, doesn’t work, and creates an ethos in a church or within a person that offers an impression that God is known and life is going well, but it isn’t sustainable. It is empty. It isn’t true.
Well, the alternative to these four distorted models is life “with” God. And he has four chapters on that, exploring how our “with God” view can help us embody faith, hope, and love. It is surprising to me that there is precious little about faith, hope and love in contemporary Christian literature (oh, how I love Dan Allander’s book about recovering from hurts of the past, The Healing Path (Waterbrook; $14.99) which, although designed for those who have experienced trauma, abuse or grief, is helpful for any of us who want to recover a deeper sense of faith, hope, love.) These last sections themselves are, therefore, a very valuable contribution to practices we need, ways of thinking about virtues and character and spirituality that are rooted in these basic Biblical values.
Skye Jethani gets it right, and helps us along. His writing is clear, concise, conversational and I believe offers very serious teaching. I hate to say this is a “worldview” book as some don’t find that to be a compelling selling point. But surely how we think about God, and how God works in the world, and what sort of relationship we have with God is a core aspect of the most basic thing we can know about “life after Eden” (as he describes the human condition in the first chapter.)
With is a fun book, too. He illustrates a point nicely using The Birdman of Alcatraz, one of the few movies I remember my father taking me to, and he quotes Jerome Berryman’s Christian ed classic, Godly Play. He quotes letters of J.R. R. Tolkien and commends Robert Letham’s magisterial work on the Trinity. Any book that uses Surprised By Hope gets my attention, and he throws in an elegant line or two from The Call by Os Guinness. The last line is from a famous poem of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I love a richly written book with great use of good quotes that isn’t difficult but which teaches new content, and reminds us of old truths. Jethani is a good communicator, and that is important. Missional guru Alan Hirsch is spot on when he says “Skye Jethani writes with a stylish verve, real intelligence, and spiritual depth.”
Here are a few other quotes endorsing the book. They are all from writers I respect and I’m happy to share this to let you know that this may be worth your time. I hope you read through them as they capture the strengths of this title. Why not recommend it for your small group, book club, or adult Sunday school class? This is a good appendix about discussion With with others, which makes it that much more useful.
Made of the stuff of spiritual classics
and presented in simple, contemporary terms, Skye Jethani does each of
us a great service in calling us to reimagine the way we relate to God.
We so readily fall prey to living out distortions and reductions to
our Christian faith–with disastrous consequences. You and I are far
more than sinners, consumers, managers, and servants. We are dearly
loved by God and made for eternal communion with him. Everything looks
different when we live life in response to God’s love. Paul
Louis Metzger, Ph.D., Professor of Christian Theology & Theology
of Culture, Multnomah Biblical Seminary and author of The Gospel of John: When Love Comes to Town
using four prepositions-under, over, from, and for, Skye Jethani
convincingly diagnoses the reigning paradigms of life–whether secular
or religious-and shows how each one has captured some element of truth
but in the end is deficient; Ultimately, they miss the most important
thing-real communion with the living God. Thus utilizing one final
preposition, With, he lays out what it really means to know and
experience communion with God-a life of faith, hope and love–the very
things that we all desperately want and need. This is a helpful,
encouraging, and inspiring book. Jim Belcher, author of Deep Church
doesn’t matter, as old theologians were rumored to argue, how many
angels can dance on a pinhead. But it does matter which preposition
governs your faith – over, after, against, for, from, under, with. Who
knew what huge worlds turn on such tiny words? Who knew what
theological riches were laced into the bones of grammar? Skye has done a
great service to the church. In prose elegant and clear, with insights
keen and deep, he shows how everything changes with just one word:
With. It’s a book I want my whole church to read. Mark Buchanan, author of Spiritual Rhythm
knew that a preposition had so much influence? Skye’s book will
challenge the way that you think about God and faith digging deep into
our motivations and heart issues. You can’t read this book and not see
yourself and others differently! Margaret Feinberg, author of Scouting the Divine and Hungry for God
This book will do for our generation what J.B. Phillips, in his classic Your God is Too Small, did for his. With reveals
views of God that can’t satisfy and opens up the possibility for
exploring a life with God that more than satisfies. Scot McKnight, author of One.Life and The Blue Parakeet, professor of theology and biblical studies at North Park University
Since I dove into With,
I can’t stop thinking about it. Skye Jethani’s insights will change
how you think about God…and you…and how the two of you relate. Dr. Kara E. Powell, Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute
There’s a good reason why Skye is a senior editor at Leadership Journal…he
writes with a stylish verve, real intelligence, and spiritual depth.
Suggesting that the basic posture that you adopt towards God determines
the quality, meaning, and direction of your life, With is designed to head readers in the right direction Alan Hirsch, author of Untamed, TheForgottenWays.org
Here is a link to the Q website where Skye gave a great (short) talk “Inoculating a Generation” which we also recommend. It is upbeat and hip, but very profound. Check that out, watch his keynote talk, and then order the book from us asap. It will help you reimagine your relationship with God.
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