Archive for the ‘Nonfiction Review’ Category

Review of Strange Planet, by Nathan W. Pyle

Tuesday, March 24th, 2020

Strange Planet

by Nathan W. Pyle

William Morrow Gift Books, 2019. 144 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 26, 2019, from my own copy, signed by the author and purchased via

I’m a big fan of Nathan Pyle’s comics posted on Facebook with smooth-bodied aliens living the lives of humans but describing what they are doing in very basic terms that highlight the absurdity or simplicity.

I’ve decided that the alien way of speaking reminds me of nice logical German word construction when the aliens called an umbrella a “sky shield,” because the actual German word for umbrella is Regenschirm, which broken down translates as “rain shield.”

Many of the words make you look at the things in a different way, such as the aliens calling a vacuum cleaner a “rollsuck” which has “the filth window.” Or honey, which is called “plant liquid partially digested by insects and then stolen.” Or balloons, which are “elastic breath traps.” Coffee is “jitter liquid,” and a vase is a “death cylinder” for holding “dying plants.”

Names for things are fun, but the interaction between people and between people and animals can be wonderfully touching. I think my favorite is the one that begins with one of the aliens crying. Their friend says, “Why does your face malfunction? Request mutual limb enclosure.”
“Permission granted.”
As they hug, the crying friend says, “You are absorbing my face fluids.”
“Let me absorb.
Let me absorb.”

I also love the one where one alien is on the phone, saying:

“Hello we do not want to make sustenance.
We will literally pay a being to come here with sustenance.
Please pile edible items onto a vast dough circle.
OK Gratitude. We will stay here and do nothing.”

There are certainly days I would pay a being to come to my home with sustenance.

I find myself Sharing Nathan Pyle’s comics often, so when he was promoting a special on autographed copies of his new book, I thought it would be a great way to support an author and pick up some Christmas gifts. I’m happy to say that the unsigned one I’d previously preordered for myself (had to hit the dollar limit) was a maximum-traded item at the staff Christmas party this year!

If you haven’t seen Nathan Pyle’s work, try this out. If you have: There’s a book out!

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Review of Beneath the Tamarind Tree, by Isha Sesay

Friday, March 6th, 2020

Beneath the Tamarind Tree

A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram

by Isha Sesay

Dey St. (William Morrow), 2019. 382 pages.
Starred Review
Review written February 24, 2020, from a signed advance reader copy and a library book

CNN journalist Isha Sesay tells the story of 276 Nigerian girls kidnapped from a boarding school in the night of April 14, 2014. 57 managed to escape that night. The girls were made to sleep on the ground, work for their captors, and given little to eat. They were urged to convert to Islam and then to marry their captors. The ones who refused to convert were made to work as slaves for the new wives.

I was a little ambivalent about how much Isha Sesay puts herself into the story. But it seems appropriate because part of the story is how little the Nigerian government did to recover the girls, who were from poor, rural families. There was even a strong movement asserting that it was all a hoax to make the government look bad. So the author’s work to bring international attention to the plight of the girls did help their recovery.

More than 100 of the girls have still not been recovered. But twenty-one were released on October 13, 2016, and eighty-two more in May 2017. The author worked with the released girls to find out their story, but she also gives the perspective of heartbroken parents who still have not recovered their daughters.

Even though the author is herself Muslim, the Christian faith of the schoolgirls shines through in these pages. It was their faith – especially of those who refused to convert – that helped them through the terrible times.

Boko Haram is against educating women, so it’s something of a triumph that most of the released girls are now attending university. But I do hope this book will help the world remember the plight of those who have still not been recovered.

This story is both inspiring and very sad. It’s terrible what the girls and their parents went through, and what many are still enduring. But those who came home tell an inspiring story of faith and perseverance during a frightening trial.

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Review of The Orphaned Adult, by Alexander Levy

Sunday, February 16th, 2020

The Orphaned Adult

Understanding and Coping with Grief and Change After the Death of Our Parents

by Alexander Levy

Perseus Books, 1999. 190 pages.
Starred Review
Review written February 8, 2020, from a library book

My father died unexpectedly four months ago, from a blood clot two days after minor surgery that had gone well. Then my mother died expectedly two months ago, after more than a decade with Alzheimer’s.

There was a very foolish part of me that hadn’t thought my mother’s death would hit me as hard as it did, since it was expected. But it was all so wrapped up in the unexpected death of my father. And now I have no parents on earth at all. And yes, it’s hitting me very, very hard.

One of my sisters (I think Marcy?) recommended this book to the rest of us, I believe giving it to the shared Kindle account (which I don’t use). I found the book extremely helpful. For me, it was probably helpful to realize that yes, losing your parents shakes you up. Even if you didn’t see them very often, and even if one of their deaths was long expected.

The author acknowledges that this is something almost everyone goes through. And since everyone goes through it, somehow most people don’t realize what a big deal it is.

Now, he also talks about the difference between when your first parent dies and when your second parent dies – I think my siblings and I can expect feelings to be multiplied with our parents dying at what seems like almost the same time.

The book didn’t seem incredibly profound. But I can’t overemphasize what a big deal it was to be told that the death of both your parents is a big deal. That was so helpful to me.

The most personally helpful chapter to me (so far) was the one called “Just Exactly Who Do You Think You Are? The Impact of Parental Death on Personal Identity.” Yes, I had been questioning who I am and what I was doing on the East Coast when all my family is on the West Coast. But I hadn’t connected that with my parents deaths. Realizing it was connected helped me greatly with my grappling.

After parents die, for the first time in our lives – and for the rest of our lives – we no longer feel we are someone’s child because we no longer have living parents. Changing this one fact precipitates a change in identity that is disorienting and confusing. Many of us become a little lost, temporarily. How, after all, is one to navigate when the directional beacon goes out, regardless of whether we had been moving toward it or away from it? Who am I now that I am nobody’s child?

I’ve had a feeling of being less safe since my dad died. The author captures a little of that:

In adulthood, parents are like the rearview mirror of a car, making it safe to operate, as we head into the unknown, by providing a glimpse of where and who we have been so we can better understand where and who we are becoming.

When parents die, the experience is not as much like no longer finding a mirror in its accustomed location as it is like looking into the mirror and seeing nothing. How is one to navigate with the unknown ahead and nothing behind?

This book has a lot of anecdotes, exploring the different aspects of people’s experiences after their parents die. The author is a psychologist, so he does use examples from his practice as well as his own experience. Each chapter begins with a poem from different authors about the death of parents.

The introductory chapter points out that parents are the constant in our lives since birth. It should not surprise us when their absence affects us deeply. But it does.

It is a cultural fiction that parental death is an incidental experience of adult life. If one of the purposes of culture is to provide us with a map – navigational assistance as we move into each stage of life – then this particular bit of misinformation beguiles us. Imagine a map that failed to correctly show a huge turn in the road, beyond which lay a dramatically different terrain in which many road signs change meaning. Perhaps this cultural falsehood supports and promotes certain social and material values, but it does not serve us well since it so poorly equips us for the actual experience when it occurs.

The maps of antiquity were drawn with borders of dragons and serpents to differentiate the known terrain, with its explored forests and rivers, from the vast and yet unexplored territories beyond, filled with the fearsome dangers that always seem to lurk in the unknown. Our culture does not supply a map with a border of dragons to warn us that things will be different beyond a certain point. As a result, each of us is caught by surprise when we move beyond the limit of our parents’ lives.

The stories that fill this book do show us there’s not one particular way everyone is going to feel. But they do help you realize that being an orphan – even when you’re a fully grown adult – is something big to deal with.

I do recommend this book to any adult who’s lost both their parents. I found it helpful, truthful, and comforting.

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Review of That All Shall Be Saved, by David Bentley Hart

Sunday, December 29th, 2019

That All Shall Be Saved

Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation

by David Bentley Hart

Yale University Press, 2019. 222 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 26, 2019, from my own copy purchased via

My cousin Keith mentioned on Facebook that this book was coming out, a book on the same topic as Rob Bell’s Love Wins. He mentioned it with concern, but it gave me great delight, and I ordered the book on Amazon. It makes a nice addition to my collection of books supporting universalism.

This one takes a very academic perspective. The book is written in academic language, and I’m ashamed to admit that some of the language went right over my head. He also takes a primarily philosophical approach, arguing about the nature of God and goodness and free will. (No wonder my cousin knew of this author – my cousin is a professor of philosophy.)

One thing I love about this book is that there’s not a trace of wishy-washiness in his opinions. Now, when I first started reading about universalism, I’m glad I encountered writers with more humility, more willing to concede they might be mistaken. But the more I’ve read, the more universalism seems to make everything make sense, and for me at this point, it feels refreshing to read an author who’s sure about what he’s teaching. Here’s how he puts it in the Introduction:

If Christianity taken as a whole is indeed an entirely coherent and credible system of belief, then the universalist understanding of its message is the only one possible. And, quite imprudently, I say that without the least hesitation or qualification.

And he adds to that in the end of the book:

To say that, on the one hand, God is infinitely good, perfectly just, and inexhaustibly loving, and that, on the other, he has created a world under such terms as oblige him either to impose, or to permit the imposition of, eternal misery on finite rational beings, is simply to embrace a complete contradiction. And, no matter how ingenious the rhetorical tricks one devises to convince oneself that the claim is in fact logically coherent, morally elevating, and spiritually enlivening, the contradiction remains unresolved. All becomes mystery, but only in the sense that it requires a very mysterious ability to believe impossible things.

The book begins by looking at the question of an eternal hell, and then four meditations looking at four questions: “Who is God?” “What Is Judgment?” “What Is a Person?” and “What Is Freedom?”

In the section on the question of an eternal hell, he says that he is okay with the view that suffering in hell is essentially self-imposed.

A hardened heart is already its own punishment; the refusal to love or be loved makes the love of others – or even just their presence – a source of suffering and a goad to wrath. At the very least, this is a psychological fact that just about any of us can confirm from experience.

His problem with the common teaching on hell is strictly with the idea that hell is never-ending.

Once one has had time to think about it for a little while, one should notice that, when all is said and done, this very rational and psychologically plausible understanding of hell still in no significant way improves the larger picture of God as creator and redeemer – at least, not if one insists upon adding the qualification “eternal” or “final” to the condition of self-imposed misery that it describes. At that point, we find that our two questions remain as gallingly unaddressed as ever: the secondary question of whether this defiant rejection of God for all of eternity is really logically possible for any rational being; and the primary question of whether the God who creates a reality in which the eternal suffering of any being is possible – even if it should be a self-induced suffering – can in fact be the infinitely good God of love that Christianity says he is.

David Bentley Hart goes into great detail looking at these questions. He gives a preview of where he’s going:

One argument that I shall make in this book is that the very notion that a rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties could, in any meaningful sense, freely reject God absolutely and forever is a logically incoherent one. Another is that, for this and other reasons, a final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how depraved that being might have become. Still another is that, even if that fate were in some purely abstract sense “just,” the God who would permit it to become anyone’s actual fate could never be perfectly good – or, rather, as Christian metaphysical tradition obliges us to phrase it, could never be absolute Goodness as such – but could be at most only a relative calculable good in relation to other relative calculable goods. And yet another is that the traditional doctrine of hell’s perpetuity renders other aspects of the tradition, such as orthodox Christology or the eschatological claims of the Apostle Paul, ultimately meaningless. If all of this seems obscure, which at this point it should, I hope it will have become clear by the end of the book.

By this time, you understand what I mean when I say this book is primarily philosophical and written in academic language. This book isn’t for every reader, but if these quotations make you wonder or want to argue, you know where to find more.

Now, please don’t think that his arguments are merely philosophical and apart from Scripture. No, as with every book on universalism, an important part of his argument is the assertion that our modern day infernalist view of eternal hell comes from mistranslations of Greek and Hebrew Scripture.

This author has already published his own translation of the New Testament. So that either means that he has a thorough knowledge of the Greek language used or it means that he’s translating to please himself. Since his conclusions match what so many other authors have told me about the meaning of significant Greek words, and since he looks at the historical use of key terms outside the Bible, including their use by Plato as well as by the early church fathers, I’m going with the view that he’s got a thorough knowledge of the Greek.

He covers the writings of the New Testament most closely in his meditation “What Is Judgment?” Here’s a little bit from that section:

There is a general sense among most Christians that the notion of an eternal hell is explicitly and unremittingly advanced in the New Testament; and yet, when we go looking for it in the actual pages of the text, it proves remarkably elusive. The whole idea is, for instance, entirely absent from the Pauline corpus, as even the thinnest shadow of a hint. Nor is it anywhere patently present in any of the other epistolary texts. There is one verse in the gospels, Matthew 25:46, that – at least, as traditionally understood – offers what seems the strongest evidence for the idea (though even there, as I shall explain below, the wording leaves room for considerable doubt regarding its true significance); and then there are perhaps a couple of verses from Revelation (though, as ever when dealing with that particular book, caveat lector). Beyond that, nothing is clear. What in fact the New Testament provides us with are a number of fragmentary and fantastic images that can be taken in any number of ways, arranged according to our prejudices and expectations, and declared literal or figural or hyperbolic as our desires dictate. True, Jesus speaks of a final judgment, and uses many metaphors to describe the unhappy lot of the condemned. Many of these are metaphors of destruction, like the annihilation of chaff or brambles in ovens, or the final death of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). Others are metaphors of exclusion, like the sealed doors of wedding feasts. A few, a very few, are images of imprisonment and torture; but, even then, in the relevant verses, those punishments are depicted as having only a limited term (Matthew 5:36; 18:34; Luke 12:47-48, 59). Nowhere is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god.

On the other hand, however, there are a remarkable number of passages in the New Testament, several of them from Paul’s writings, that appear instead to promise a final salvation of all persons and all things, and in the most unqualified terms. I imagine some or most of these latter could be explained away as rhetorical exaggeration; but then, presumably, the same could be said of those verses that appear to presage an everlasting division between the redeemed and the reprobate. To me it is surpassingly strange that, down the centuries, most Christians have come to believe that one class of claims – all of which are allegorical, pictorial, vague, and metaphorical in form – must be regarded as providing the “literal” content of the New Testament’s teaching regarding the world to come, while another class – all of which are invariably straightforward doctrinal statements – must be regarded as mere hyperbole.

But this book especially stands out in tackling head-on the argument that God has to respect mankind’s “free will” and allow people to choose eternity away from God. Even C. S. Lewis had this view. But is someone who acts irrationally truly free?

A choice made without rationale is a contradiction in terms. At the same time, any movement of the will prompted by an entirely perverse rationale would be, by definition, wholly irrational – insane, that is to say – and therefore no more truly free than a psychotic episode. The more one is in one’s right mind – the more, that is, that one is conscious of God as the Goodness that fulfills all beings, and the more one recognizes that one’s own nature can have its true completion and joy nowhere but in him, and the more one is unfettered by distorting misperceptions, deranged passions, and the encumbrances of past mistakes – the more inevitable is one’s surrender to God. Liberated from all ignorance, emancipated from all adverse conditions of this life, the rational soul could freely will only its own union with God, and thereby its own supreme beatitude. We are, as it were, doomed to happiness, so long as our natures follow their healthiest impulses unhindered; we cannot not will the satisfaction of our beings in our true final end, a transcendent Good lying behind and beyond all the proximate ends we might be moved to pursue. This is no constraint upon the freedom of the will, coherently conceived; it is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good: a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him. A rational nature seeks a rational end: Truth, which is God himself. The irresistibility of God for any soul that has truly been set free is no more a constraint placed upon its liberty than is the irresistible attraction of a flowing spring of fresh water in a desert place to a man who is dying of thirst; to choose not to drink in that circumstance would be not an act of freedom on his part, but only a manifestation of the delusions that enslave him and force him to inflict violence upon himself, contrary to his nature. A woman who chooses to run into a burning building not to save another’s life, but only because she can imagine no greater joy than burning to death, may be exercising a kind of “liberty,” but in the end she is captive to a far profounder poverty of rational freedom.

He’s also very clear about the injustice of applying eternal punishment to finite creatures.

None of this should need saying, to be honest. We should all already know that whenever the terms “justice” and “eternal punishment” are set side by side as if they were logically compatible, the boundaries of the rational have been violated. If we were not so stupefied by the hoary and venerable myth that eternal damnation is an essential element of the original Christian message (which, not to spoil later plot developments here, it is not), we would not even waste our time on so preposterous a conjunction. From the perspective of Christian belief, the very notion of a punishment that is not intended ultimately to be remedial is morally dubious (and, I submit, anyone who doubts this has never understood Christian teaching at all); but, even if one believes that Christianity makes room for the condign imposition of purely retributive punishments, it remains the case that a retribution consisting in unending suffering, imposed as recompense for the actions of a finite intellect and will, must be by any sound definition disproportionate, unjust, and at the last nothing more than an expression of sheer pointless cruelty.

So that gives you the idea. There’s much more in this book. I hope there are people out there who are intrigued by this (to me) refreshing logic. Here’s where the author leaves us at the end of the meditation on freedom:

Freedom consists in the soul’s journey through this interior world of constantly shifting conditions and perspectives, toward the only home that can ultimately liberate the wanderer from the exile of sin and illusion. And God, as the transcendent end that draws every rational will into actuality, never ceases setting every soul free, ever and again, until it finds that home. To the inevitable God, every soul is bound by its freedom. In the end, if God is God and spirit is spirit, and if there really is an inextinguishable rational freedom in every soul, evil itself must disappear in every intellect and will, and hell must be no more. Only then will God, both as the end of history and as that eternal source and end of beings who transcends history, be all in all. For God, as scripture says, is a consuming fire, and he must finally consume everything.

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Review of The Rapture Exposed, by Barbara R. Rossing

Sunday, November 17th, 2019

The Rapture Exposed

The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation

by Barbara R. Rossing

Westview Press, 2004. 212 pages.
Starred Review
Reviewed November 16, 2019, from a library book

When I was only in elementary school and junior high, I was already an expert on the End Times. That is, the End Times as defined by dispensationalists. (Dispensationalists believe that God deals with humans in different ways during different time periods or dispensations.) The church my family attended had a chart on the wall in the library where my Sunday School class met showing all the dispensations of human history, including the Church Age (when we are now), the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, the Millennium, the Second Coming, and the New Heaven and New Earth. It was all charted out in that order. Many books were being published about biblical prophecy, including Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. My family purchased many of them, and I read them, fascinated. Our church held some conferences on biblical prophecy where some of the authors spoke. I read Tim LaHaye’s books on the End Times a couple decades before he ever became a best-selling author with the Left Behind novel series.

When I got to college, I attended a Christian university. As it happened, I took a class on “The Church and Last Things” at the same time I was memorizing the Book of Revelation. I couldn’t help but notice that the Book of Revelation has no chart. And that the things I’d been taught might be something of a stretch to actually find in the Bible.

I’d already noticed that when Jesus came the first time, he did not meet the expectations of religious leaders. I have a feeling that prophecy isn’t usually given so we’ll be able to predict the future, but more so that we’ll be able to recognize God’s hand when He moves. I also noticed that Revelation is about telling us who’s going to win. Almost every chapter has a significant section of praise to God.

Things certainly don’t seem to be strictly chronological in Revelation. And a lot of the imagery to me doesn’t seem to quite fit what I was told it represented. When I did read the first several Left Behind books, I thought it was silly how they took some things literally – like locusts with human faces – and others figuratively.

I also clearly disagreed with some theology in the books, but I still had pretty ingrained in me that Revelation would happen basically the way they predicted. I am thankful to this book for showing me another way to look at Revelation, and a way that makes more sense and to me seems to follow more easily from what you read.

Now, I did know from my class at Biola University that not all Christians believe in a “pre-tribulation rapture.” But almost everything I’d read about end times – except the Bible itself – was from that perspective. Barbara Rossing begins her book this way:

The rapture is a racket. Whether prescribing a violent script for Israel or survivalism in the United States, this theology distorts God’s vision for the world. In place of healing, the Rapture proclaims escape. In place of Jesus’ blessing of peacemakers, the Rapture voyeuristically glorifies violence and war. In place of Revelation’s vision of the Lamb’s vulnerable self-giving love, the Rapture celebrates the lion-like wrath of the Lamb. This theology is not biblical. We are not Raptured off the earth, nor is God. No, God has come to live in the world through Jesus. God created the world, God loves the world, and God will never leave the world behind!

Most of this book is about going through the book of Revelation and looking at the things it actually tells us, but the author begins by giving us the history of the idea of the “Rapture.” She explains that it began about two hundred years ago when a girl in Scotland had a vision that the second coming of Jesus Christ would happen in two stages. The word “Rapture” does not occur in Scripture, but comes from the Latin word raptio, a translation of the Greek word for “caught up” from I Thessalonians 4:17 about what will happen when Jesus returns. But the two-stage return idea was new, and the idea of dispensations was developed to make it fit.

Dispensationalists admit that they pull things together from different parts of the Bible to make their teachings and their charts. Even the idea of seven years of tribulation has to be pieced together within the book of Revelation.

So you can read all this – where the Rapture came from and how the whole theory is pieced together, and it’s all very interesting, sounding much less coherent than when I read the theories from the authors themselves when I was a child.

But what I especially love about this book is the way she looks at Revelation and helps me to look at it with new eyes. She talks about how Revelation fit with other apocalyptic writings of the time and followed a similar format. Here’s an overarching view of the message of the book:

In the first of his apocalyptic journeys (Rev 4-5) John travels up to heaven. There he sees a beautiful vision of God’s throne, revealed to be the true power behind the universe. Angels and animals are worshiping God and singing songs of praise to Jesus, the Lamb. Revelation’s subsequent visions pull back the curtain to “unveil” the Roman empire for what it really is: Rome is not the great eternal power it claims to be, but a demonic beast that oppresses the world. God’s people must undertake a spiritual exodus out of the empire, led by the Lamb. God threatens evil Babylon/Rome with plagues like the plagues of the Exodus story. We must not put our trust in Roman security or power, nor that of any other empire. We are to give allegiance to God alone.

She reminds us of how the book came across to its original recipients:

Revelation was originally written for those whom South African theologian Allan Boesak calls “God’s little people” – communities of people who struggled under oppression – not for people with access to airplanes or money or the latest technology. The best way to understand Revelation’s message for today is to put ourselves in the place of the audience for whom it was originally written. Imagine Revelation as a message from the underside, written to comfort beleaguered churches struggling under Roman imperial violence and power. Revelation has spoken powerfully to oppressed people throughout history. Its voice of protest is heard in spirituals as well as gospel songs and hymns.

I do love that she points out something that struck me hard when I memorized the book of Revelation: the book is packed with praise.

Revelation is full of songs – heavenly choruses praising God and encouraging us to sing in the midst of tribulation. Just when the book begins to sound hopeless or despairing, a host of witnesses in heaven break into song. Even animals join the Lamb’s chorus, singing along with a cacophony of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea.” No other book of the Bible has shaped Christian hymns and music as much as Revelation, from Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” African American spirituals, and even reggae (“Let’s get together to fight this Holy Armageddon,” from Bob Marley’s “One Love”). Revelation’s songs are not intended to be literalistic. Indeed, the metaphorical dimension is precisely what gives Revelation’s songs their power. Songs connect us to something deeper: they evoke our capacity for solidarity and resistance, they give us hope.

Or as she puts it later:

Singing and worship are central to Revelation, a fact often overlooked by people who see the book only as a system of end-times predictions and timetables. In Revelation we sing our way into God’s new vision for our world, more than in any other book of the Bible.

The author urges us to relish the metaphors of Revelation:

Revelation’s world of vision is like that of a Magic Eye picture. It is an “Aha” kind of vision that draws us in to see the deeper picture. God invites us to let go of the flat page, to stop trying to figure out each literal detail of Revelation, and instead to enter further into the larger picture. As we read and meditate on the images of Revelation, we find whole new levels of God’s vision for our world unveiled to us: We taste water that is not just water – it is living water, the river of life. We follow Jesus, the shepherding Lamb, who invites us to drink from springs of that living water. We hear God’s lament for our world that is oppressed, and we witness the trial and judgment of oppressors in a suspense-filled courtroom. Finally, most wonderfully, we see God coming to earth to live with us in a beloved city – to wipe away all the world’s tears.

But I especially love the chapter called “Lamb Power,” where Barbara Rossing explains the subversive heart of the book of Revelation. She points out that just when you expect Rome’s images of power and victory is when the Lamb comes out.

Seated on the throne in heaven, God holds a scroll sealed shut with seven seals that must be opened. But who is worthy to open this scroll? God’s voice from the throne tells John in chapter 5, “Do not weep, for the lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Two words in this admonition – “lion” and “conquer” (nike in Greek) – lead us to expect that a fierce animal will appear to open the scroll with its claws, like the conquering lions in gladiatorial spectacles. A lion would be typical for an apocalypse; such fierce animals are often introduced to advance the plot. In Second Esdras, for example, the Messiah is portrayed as a roaring lion prophesying judgment against the Roman eagle and its violence.

But Revelation pulls an amazing surprise. In place of the lion that we expect, comes a Lamb: “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Rev 5:6). It is a complete reversal. Actually the Greek word John uses is not just “lamb,” but the diminutive form, a word like “lambkin,” “lamby,” or “little lamb” (arnion in Greek) – “Fluffy,” as Pastor Daniel Erlander calls it. The only other place this word arnion is used in the New Testament is where Jesus says he is sending his disciples out into the world “as lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3). No other apocalypse ever pictures the divine hero as a Lamb – Revelation is unique among apocalyptic writings in this image. The depiction of Jesus as a Lamb shows him in the most vulnerable way possible, as a victim who is slaughtered by standing – that is, crucified but risen to life.

Reminiscent of the servant-lamb of Isaiah 53, who “is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep to the shearer is silent,” the Lamb of Revelation became the victor not by militaristic power and slaughter but rather by being slaughtered. From beginning to end, Revelation’s vision of the Lamb teaches a “theology of the cross,” of God’s power made manifest in weakness, similar to Paul’s theology of the cross in First Corinthians. Lamb theology is the whole message of Revelation. Evil is defeated not by overwhelming force or violence but by the Lamb’s suffering love on the cross. The victim becomes the victor.

Lamb theology is what true victory or true nike is. For we, too, are “victors” or followers of the Lamb on whom the term nike or conquering is bestowed. This is one of the amazing features of the book. Much of Revelation can sound so violent, but we have to look at the subversive heart of the book — the redefinition of victory and “conquering” — to understand how Revelation subverts violence itself. Just like the Lamb, God’s people are called to conquer not by fighting but by remaining faithful, by testifying to God’s victory in self-giving love.

Another point that I love comes when the author talks about the centrality of the final two chapters of Revelation – chapters that dispensationalists gloss over as for a far distant day.

Contrary to the dispensationalist view, there is no rapture in the story of Revelation, no snatching of people off the earth up to heaven. Look at it this way: it is God who is raptured down to earth to take up residence and dwell with us – a rapture in reverse….

The word “dwell” in Revelation [21] is the same word as used to describe Jesus’ coming to earth in the Gospel of John, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The whole message of the Bible is that God loves the world so much that God comes to earth to dwell with us. The Gospel of Matthew calls Jesus “Emmanuel,” which means in Hebrew “God is with us.” Revelation proclaims that same message of God’s dwelling in our world. It is the message that God’s home is no longer up in heaven, but here in our midst, incarnate on earth. In Revelation 21-22 God’s throne moves down out of heaven, where it was in chapter 4, and is now located in the midst of the city – in the city descended down out of heaven, down to earth.

There’s lots more in this book. I highly recommend it. I admit that I am still will freak out if someone suggests everyone get a chip embedded in their right hand or on their forehead in order to buy and sell. But for the most part, this has enabled me to look at revelation with eyes of hope instead of fear and terror.

The hope of Revelation centers around the slain-yet-standing Lamb who has conquered – and around everything that that Lamb represents in God’s vision for us and for the world. The Lamb who replaces the expected lion in Revelation’s storyline continues to dwell with us and to overturn all the structures of war and injustice. In the face of empire, Revelation teaches us a way of life that is “Lamb power” – the power of nonviolent love to change the world. The hope of Revleation is simply this: that the Lamb has conquered the beast and that a wondrous river of life now flows out from the Lamb’s throne to bring healing water to every corner of our wounded world.

I also appreciate how she leaves us in the Epilogue:

To read the Bible’s hardest passages is like wrestling with God, much like Jacob who wrestled through the night at the river Jabbok. You grapple to make sense of the words, you hold on, you struggle for clarity, you seek to wrest answers for all your questions. What God gives you instead of a system of answers is a blessing, a new name — a living relationship. You are forever changed by the encounter. You have seen the face of God.

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Review of Raising Hell, by Julie Ferwerda

Thursday, October 31st, 2019

Raising Hell

Christianity’s Most Controversial Doctrine Put Under Fire

by Julie Ferwerda

Vagabond Group, 2014. 293 pages.
Starred Review

I first came to believe that God really will save everyone, that it’s literally true that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow” and that “as in Adam all die, so in Christ will all be made alive” from reading writings of George MacDonald in the 1990s and then checking with Scripture. Since that time, I’ve discovered many more books by people who believe the same thing, and I’ve reviewed them on my website. Each one has something new to offer, and together they bolster my picture of a great big triumphant God of love.

Raising Hell is the first book I’ve read about universalism that’s written by a woman. (About time!) This book is for laypeople and brings an emphasis on how you can study the Bible for yourself – how you can check for yourself on whether these things are true. She references many Bible study tools available to anyone with internet access. She says in the Introduction, “Raising Hell is intended to be the starting place, the opening of a most important conversation that I hope continues well beyond this book. One of my goals within these pages is to teach the reader how to do their own research by using a large variety of scholarly, historical, and informative resources that are easily accessed by anyone and everyone.”

Before I get into this, let me mention that, like all the books I’ve read on universalism, she has great arguments for universalism. Let me pull out some quotations I like:

This one’s from the Introduction:

Universal Reconciliation is the belief that all people for all time will eventually be reconciled to God – that this lifetime is not the “only chance” to be saved – but that there is only one way to God, through Jesus Christ.

Through a very intentional plan that reaches into future ages, I believe the true Gospel is that all people for all time will be willingly and joyfully drawn by the unconditional, irresistible, compelling love of a Father into a relationship with Him through His Son. In the end, every knee will have bowed, and every tongue will have confessed Jesus as Lord, giving praise to God (see Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10).

Like most universalist authors, she makes good points about the character of God, particularly looking at the parables in Luke 15 of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son:

Throughout this book, we are going to explore how understanding the message of these parables and learning the heart of the Father will deliver the fatal blow to any such notion of an everlasting hell, or even the more palatable version of “eternal separation from God.” As we piece together a remarkable story, we’ll find that it can’t be possible that He would turn away even one son or daughter, and that every person, given enough time to “starve among the swine,” will come to the realization that home is where they belong. Even before they can round the bend for home, they will be welcomed with the happy reassurance that the eyes of their true Father never stopped searching the horizon, ready to run to them with loving, open arms. If Jesus’ words are to be our instruction in the matters of life, then we can have assurance that love is the healer of all things. Our Father will ultimately never give up on nor ever reject – ever!

She talks about how her own quest began by noticing significant translation differences between different versions of the Bible, in many cases contradicting one another. This helped her realize that the English Bible we read – whatever version we choose – is not going to perfectly translate the original language. And the first word she looks at which is very suspiciously translated is hell.

The notion of hell is suspiciously missing from the OT as the destiny for most of mankind, unless you read the KJV or TM (The Message), both of which include the word hell over thirty times. Do KJV and TM know something others don’t? Why the inconsistency? . . .

In the rest of the popular modern versions, the literal translations, and the Hebrew and Greek texts, there are NO references to hell in the OT, or of the concept of everlasting tormenting flames – not one.

Then she looks at the New Testament.

Red flag alert. There are essentially three different Greek words that translators inconsistently pick and choose to translate as “hell” — Hades, Gehenna, and Tartaroo, but not one conveys hell as we know it and teach it today.

She looks in detail at the references where these are mentioned and how they can easily – and more naturally – be translated differently.

She also looks at where the idea of eternal hell came from. It wasn’t prevalent in the church until Augustine popularized it. He spoke Latin instead of Greek, and our early English translations were translated from the Latin rather than from the original Greek, so our understanding has drifted from what the original writers were talking about.

After looking at teachings on hell in the first part of the book, the second part looks at the character of God and the important teaching of the Bible that love never fails. The focus on fire is over and over combined with talk of a refining, purifying fire.

Is it not the same with our own children, each their own yet fully out of us? When I think of the bond earthly parents have with our children, I know it is utterly impossible that God would ever ask us to lose a part of ourselves forever, any more than He would ever intend to give up a part of Himself. His answer is not damnation, but regeneration of all His children into purified sparks!

Jesus always esteemed children because He came to show the heart of the Father toward His children. A true father’s love cannot be earned, and it cannot be done away with. Just as we would never give up on our children, God will never give up on His children; His love will not fail them.

The third part of this book looks at Hebrew themes carried throughout both the Old and New Testaments. This is where she covers the word that all universalist authors bring up, aion, which is incorrectly translated “eternity” in many English versions.

Eternity had no place in the mind of the early Hebrews, probably because neither their Scriptures nor their dealings with God included any such concept. In fact, the Scriptures in Hebrew and Greek were solely written with the perspective of generations or long periods of time (eons or ages), unfolding like a chapter book. About the closest you get in the Scriptures to the concept of never-ending is the word for “immortality,” (athanasia) which literally means “un-death.”

Julie Ferwerda has lots to say about the mistranslation of aion for “eternity” or “forever,” or actually many other words that are used. But I do love it when she points out something I noticed when I did my blog series, A Universalist Looks at the New Testament: Very often, eonian life is talked about in the present tense, as something we are receiving right now. After a list of many verses like this, she says:

There are many more such verses you can look up, correcting them with eonian life and the proper verb tense to experience the greater truth that Jesus came to give us life right now — not just later – and that people’s lives are markedly improved when they believe, understand, and live the true Gospel message.

She does talk about the specific ages and covenants and harvests she sees in Scripture. I’m not sure I would get so specific, though her application of some Old Testament concepts of harvests and the Jubilee is fascinating. I am sure that I do agree with this:

We are living in a plan of ages, but the purpose of these ages – at least the ages we know about – is going to come to an end, as will all of the eonian (temporary) elements in them. The Scriptures do not provide detail as to what happens after the Story of the ages is complete, when all prodigals have been reconciled to their true Father, but we do know that all forms of death will have been destroyed and God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

Her perspective also sheds great light on the problem of evil. With her big picture view, she is able to bring me where I can see it like she does:

I have come to regard the problem of evil like a tension in a compelling novel, juxtaposed to the ultimate, euphoric resolution. In any good novel, the reader longs to find resolve, but has to wait until the final chapter to see how it is accomplished. In our Story, I believe God’s expression of love is exponentially expanded, not diminished, through the necessity of evil. Evil does not reign supreme or have the final say, but is only a limited, temporary tool or a means to an end of a great, full circle, happily ever after.

She sums up so nicely the effect believing in universalism has had on my own life:

When you realize that God fills everything and nothing is outside of Him, suddenly life around you becomes less dangerous, more hopeful, promising, and beautiful. The skies look bluer, the trees look greener, every single person you meet is more valued – even the filth and pollution is less oppressive, and darkness is less suffocating.

Thank goodness I don’t have to try to play God anymore. I can completely trust Him with my kids, my marriage, my finances, my health, and my future. I can simply trust Him in all things because His unchangeable plan has already determined that everything will work out in the end. In other words, if it hasn’t worked out yet, it’s not the end.

Like her, I find this teaching is full of joy:

This is the kind of Gospel – where no one is a throw away – that breeds life, and joy, and continuous wonder. This Gospel births a sincere, deep love for people, and the excitement to share the truly unconditional love of God with everyone. It is so gratifying to know that every single kind word or deed offered will someday result in the growing of a seedling or the bearing of fruit from a person created in the image of God. No effort will ever be wasted or insignificant. The joy and energy this realization has brought into my life is positively captivating and simply impossible to fully articulate.

The final section of the book contains resources – resources so the reader can study these things for themselves and figure out if these ideas are true. She lists several online resources, gives a chapter called “Simple Steps for Identifying Mistranslations,” and another chapter that looks at commonly misunderstood concepts in Scripture – with their Strong’s number so you can look up the original Greek word involved.

Several more resources are offered. One that especially gratified me is the final list, titled “Modern, Well-Known Commentaries of Aion and its Derivatives.” She gives quotations from nine different commentaries that agree that aion does not carry the meaning “unending.” These begin with Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Lange’s Commentary American Edition, and six more.

Why does this gratify me? Well, not long ago two different people – one a stranger on Facebook and the other my former pastor – pointed me to one particular Greek dictionary that said that aion can be translated “eternal,” and they said that was the final word on the subject. I didn’t have a resource those arguing with me would recognize as equally authoritative. Now I have nine.

I always hesitate to write a long review about a book that makes a persuasive case for something – lest you think that reading my brief summary of the argument is as good as reading the book itself. But in this case I wanted to give you a taste of the good things contained in this book. And like Julie Ferwerda, I challenge you to examine these ideas yourself. This book offers a wonderful jumping-off point.

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Review of The Watchman and Other Poems, by L. M. Montgomery

Friday, September 20th, 2019

The Watchman and Other Poems

by L. M. Montgomery

Leopold Classic Library, reproduced from McClelland, Goodchild & Stewart Publishers, 1916. 159 pages.
Review written September 20, 2019, from my own copy

I’m rereading my L. M. Montgomery books in publication order, but never had found a copy of her book of poems, the eighth book she published. I found it in a reprint on Amazon and rectified that omission.

I am probably not the best audience for poetry. And these are old-fashioned in style, often using archaic language. They all rhyme, and many of the rhymes seem trite.

The story goes that when Maud Montgomery was a girl, she tried her hand at unrhymed poetry and read an example to her father. He said it didn’t sound like poetry.

She said, “It’s blank verse.”
He replied, “Very blank.”

And she wrote rhymed poetry forever after.

I wasn’t crazy about the format of the book, because it grouped poems about the sea together, and then poems about the woods together – and they began to all sound the same.

The poems I liked best were the poems that tell a story. Perhaps that’s because what L. M. Montgomery is good at is telling stories. The title poem, “The Watchman,” was about one of the soldiers guarding Jesus’ tomb when he was resurrected. Another poem, “If Mary Had Known,” told about the very bad and very good things her son would go through.

L. M. Montgomery likely suffered from bipolar disorder, so that gave a little extra light on “The Choice” – where she tells Life that she would rather “sound thy deeps and reach thy highest passion, With thy delight and with thy suffering rife” than have a boring life. “Wan peace, uncolored days, were a poor favor; To lack great pain and love were to lack savor.”

Another one I liked was “To My Enemy.” In it, she thanks not her friend, but her enemy for spurring her to do great things.

I had not scaled such weary heights
But that I held thy scorn in fear,
And never keenest lure might match
The subtle goading of thy sneer.

Thine anger struck from me a fire
That purged all dull content away,
Our mortal strife to me has been
Unflagging spur from day to day.

It’s possible that I will appreciate the poems about the woods and the sea more after I have actually visited Prince Edward Island. I think I’d better go find out!

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Review of The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables, by Catherine Reid

Wednesday, September 18th, 2019

The Landscapes of Anne of Green Gables

by Catherine Reid

Timber Press, 2018. 280 pages.
Starred Review

Hooray! This was the perfect book to discover shortly before my own long-awaited trip to Prince Edward Island! I finished reading it a few days before I set out myself with two childhood friends.

The book is full of full-color photographs taken on Prince Edward Island. Most of the spreads that don’t have one have a black-and-white photo that L. M. Montgomery took herself, or an illustration from the original edition of Anne of Green Gables.

The author does a nice job of getting across the basics of L. M. Montgomery’s life and how important Prince Edward Island was to her. She peppers the book with many quotations about the island from the Anne books, from Maud Montgomery’s journals, and from her book The Alpine Path about her career – and how important the beautiful landscapes of her home were to her.

At the back of the book there is a list of L. M. Montgomery sites to visit, and you can be sure I’m going to visit all of the ones on Prince Edward Island.

I wish these photographs could be printed on the pages of L. M. Montgomery’s books! Seeing how beautiful Prince Edward Island truly is made me appreciate much more her many descriptions where she hopes to explain that to the reader. She does a good job – but pictures verify that instantly.

The section about Gardens on Prince Edward Island pulled together gardens in her books and gardens she talked about in her journals – with photographs of the flowers she mentions and gardens such as the kinds she described. That chapter especially gave me new appreciation of what L. M. Montgomery was saying – since I didn’t even know what some of the flowers she names look like.

Browsing through this book is a delightful experience. There are enough well-chosen words to help you appreciate what you’re seeing. And for building excitement for an upcoming trip – it is absolutely perfect!

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Review of The Alpine Path, by L. M. Montgomery

Monday, September 9th, 2019

The Alpine Path

The Story of My Career

by L. M. Montgomery

Fitzhenry & Whiteside Limited, 1990. First published in 1917.

I’m visiting Prince Edward Island in a few weeks (Yay!), and as part of my preparation, I’m rereading L. M. Montgomery’s books in the order they were published, so this short book about how she got started writing was up next.

In the Preface, the purpose of the book is explained:

In 1917 the editor of Everywoman’s World, a magazine published in Toronto from 1911 until the 1920s, asked L. M. Montgomery to write the story of her career. What she produced was published in six instalments, June through November, under the title she chose, The Alpine Path. It came from a verse that had been her inspiration during the long years when success as a writer seemed remote and only dogged determination kept her on

The Alpine path, so hard, so steep,
That leads to heights sublime.

Now, I’ve read L. M. Montgomery’s Selected Journals and am currently reading her Complete Journals — so this little book doesn’t really contain any new information for me. Instead of focusing on just her writing career, Maud Montgomery writes a lot about her childhood. Though that part very much reflects how she came up with a child as imaginative as Anne and a child so in love with the natural beauty of Prince Edward Island – this is simply who she herself was.

She also finished up The Alpine Path by copying her journal entries from her honeymoon in Scotland. It’s not very pertinent to how she became a writer, and it feels like padding to make this long enough to be a book. Visiting Scotland is very interesting, yes, but doesn’t have a whole lot to do with the story of her career. This time through the book I enjoyed that section much more, since I got to visit Scotland in 2003 and have been to some of the same places.

Since I am now reading her books chronologically, I did notice in particular how much of this story of how she got started as a writer she later used in her book Emily Climbs, as her heroine Emily of New Moon works and struggles to become an author – just as Maud Montgomery did herself. In fact, some of these scenes are pulled exactly and used for Emily, emphasizing how autobiographical a character she is.

I was also reminded that Maud Montgomery did her apprenticeship writing short stories. Here she writes about how her first efforts were spurned. But she persisted and started getting published by magazines that paid her in copies. And she persisted still more until she actually got paid, and eventually made quite a sum with her pen, even before she published a book. So Anne of Green Gables didn’t come from nothing.

This book does remind me that L. M. Montgomery is in her element writing about characters in a small town and incidents and interactions that happen with them. She knows the foibles and quirks of human nature and can draw people to great effect with her pen.

It’s also interesting that her career had just begun when she wrote The Alpine Path. She had published the first three Anne books, Kilmeny of the Orchard, the two Story Girl books, a book of short stories, and a book of poems. She would go on to publish fifteen more books in her lifetime. So it’s no wonder that this book talks more about how she got her start than on what it was like to continue to build a career as an author. I do recommend reading her journals to find out more about that!

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Review of The Annotated Anne of Green Gables, by L. M. Montgomery, edited by Wendy E. Barry, Margaret Anne Doody, and Mary E. Doody Jones

Monday, September 2nd, 2019

The Annotated
Anne of Green Gables

by L. M. Montgomery
edited by Wendy E. Barry, Margaret Anne Doody, and Mary E. Doody Jones

Oxford University Press, 1997. 496 pages.
Starred Review
Review written September 2, 2019, from my own copy.

This book is an obvious purchase for any L. M. Montgomery superfan like me. I ordered my own copy as soon as I learned of the book’s existence several years ago (though not as long ago as when it was first published in 1997). (Okay, it looks like now it’s out of print and expensive on Amazon. It’s worth looking for a used or library copy!)

I did not, however, get the book read very quickly. The content is marvelous and full of interesting tidbits, but the format is oversized. It’s a heavy book, not suitable for curling up with in bed, and not fitting easily into the books I pile up near my dining room table and read bits of daily. So I was making very slow progress.

However, this year I’m heading to Prince Edward Island with two dear friends – and that was enough for me to get motivated and finish reading this book. It’s also the perfect book to read for background on L. M. Montgomery and the book that made her famous.

The full text of Anne of Green Gables is included in this volume, but there’s a plethora of materials to go with it.

Yes, there are annotations with the notes written in the wide margins on the sides of the pages. We get insights on the books Anne refers to and notes on the sources of quotations used. We get definitions of words like “bush” (uncleared natural woodland) and “wincey.” (I once tried to use “wincey” in Scrabble because of Anne of Green Gables, but it wasn’t in a current dictionary.) We get explanations of household chores at the time like boiling the dishcloth before washing machines existed.

There are also an abundance of illustrations. Many are from early editions of Anne of Green Gables, but there are also photographs from L. M. Montgomery’s journals and other illustrations and photos from the time period.

The material at the front and back is particularly fascinating and helpful. There’s a Chronology of L. M. Montgomery’s life. I used it to update my list of her books in publication order, which I’d gotten from the internet and had a few small errors. There’s a short biography of Lucy Maud Montgomery and notes about her writing of Anne. There are even Textual Notes detailing when the manuscript differs from the first published edition or the English edition, which had some changes.

The Appendices have a wealth of material. And this is the part of the volume that I finished up recently – so they were perfect reading just before my upcoming trip. They include “The Geography of Anne of Green Gables,” and much information about the times – orphan care, education, gardening, home life, and the “concerts” where music and elocution were demonstrated. They also list the complete text of many songs, literary works, and recitation pieces that are mentioned. And at the end are book reviews that came out when Anne was first published.

This book is for the adult Anne aficionado. I, for one, found many surprises – things I’d glossed over, thinking I knew what they meant – but now I have a more complete picture. This was so much fun to read – especially in anticipation of visiting the Green Gables Museum in a few weeks!

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