Archive for the ‘Christian’ Category

Review of The Face of Water, by Sarah Ruden

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

The Face of Water

A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible

Sarah Ruden

Pantheon Books, 2017. 229 pages.
Starred Review

The Face of Water looks at the Bible as ancient literature – beautiful ancient literature. The author has translated other works of Hebrew and Greek. Now she comes at the Bible text, not as a theologian, but as a translator and as someone who has worked with these ancient languages in other contexts.

What the author is trying to do here is fairly simple:

I would read in the original languages some of the best-known passages of the Bible and describe what I saw and heard there.

So here I am now, trying to make the book less a thing of paper and glue and ink and petrochemicals, and more a living thing.

The Introduction talks about how beautiful the Bible is as literature in its original languages.

The Bible’s beauty helps explain the astonishing amount of influence this set of texts gained in itself, in defiance of hard and even disastrous circumstances. It had to be something people were genuinely attached to – not distasteful or stern or dull writing they resignedly learned and obeyed; and not decrees they regarded as trivially or oppressively superstitious but went along with for pragmatic reasons. It had to be their book; it had to win their assent by every means available.

Then she gives history of how the Bible came together. She concedes the need for translators, but then says this:

Still, to me as a reader of ancient literature, most of what I see in English Bibles is loss: the loss of sound, the loss of literary imagery, the loss of emotion, and – inevitably, because these texts were performances deeply integrated into the lives of the authors and early readers and listeners – the loss of thought and experience. A deep irony is that reverence – fear of God, deference to the religious community, reluctance to impose personal judgment on a sacred text – has the effect, over time, of flattening out the inspiring expressiveness of the original; not only the physical beauty but the actual meanings, as – I have to insist – the two aren’t separate.

In the book that follows, I will use description, analogy, speculation, and experiment in attempts to convey something of what’s lost. I may provoke a great deal of disagreement, but that’s fine. If I merely bring a fuller and more nuanced discussion of the Bible into the public sphere, where it belongs, I will have made a bigger contribution than, a few years ago, I imagined possible.

The main part of the book has an odd format. In Part One, she takes seven Old Testament passages and seven New Testament passages, one of each in each chapter, and talks about the challenges of translating those passages, talks about what special cases come up in those passages.

In Part Two, she offers (in most cases) her own translation of the fourteen passages she considered in Part One. In Part Three, she gives a more direct transliteration of the original languages for the same passages – and a literal translation in parallel.

I would have liked to have the three parts interwoven, so that after reading about John 1 in Part One, then I’d see her translation and the transliteration right away. After all, I read the book slowly, only reading a section per day, so I’d almost forgotten what was said in the first chapter of Part One before I got to Part Two. (I’m tempted to read the whole thing again and do it that way with skipping around. Perhaps someday, I will. It’s worth looking at again.)

However, despite that quibble, this book is lovely. She does manage to convey what was found in the original language in terms of sound, literary imagery, emotion, thought and expression. Her words gave me a whole new level of insight into these passages, and a different way of thinking about them.

I have to say that she chose interesting passages: The story of David and Bathsheba paired with the Lord’s Prayer; The beginning of Genesis paired with the beginning of the gospel of John; Ezekiel’s dry bones paired with martyrs before the throne in Revelation; Ecclesiastes paired with Paul’s song of God’s great love in Romans 8; the Ten Commandments paired with the parable of the Good Samaritan; and finally a chapter on “comedy”: Jonah’s preaching to the Ninevites paired with Paul’s talk in Galatians about what those who demanded Christians be circumcised could do to themselves.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s studied Greek or Hebrew. But I have studied neither of those, so I also recommend it to anyone who loves the Bible – you’ll gain new appreciation of its beauty and look at it in a new light.

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Review of Heaven’s Doors, by George W. Sarris

Saturday, January 27th, 2018

Heaven’s Doors

Wider Than You Ever Believed!

by George W. Sarris

Grace Will Succeed Publishing, 2017. 256 pages.
Starred Review

It’s true – I’ve started collecting books on universalism. I originally came to believe God will eventually save everyone by reading the writings of George MacDonald and then searching the Scriptures to see if it could be true. But George MacDonald doesn’t give a direct, organized defense of universalism.

Then I started finding more and more books that actually do defend universalism. My nagging doubts and questions all got cleared up. One of the most significant moments was when I learned that for the first 500 years of the church, while the leaders were native speakers of Greek, the most prominent teaching was that hell will not last forever, but is for the purpose of restoring and refining those who do not come to Christ while they are alive on earth.

This book, Heaven’s Doors, didn’t contain anything I hadn’t heard before, but I think it may be my new first choice for explaining universalist views to others. The author takes the Bible seriously – He would not have come to this view if he didn’t believe it’s what the Bible teaches. He also researched the teachings of the early church fathers.

But even though there is rigorous research behind his positions, he writes with a light and readable style. He even includes anecdotes at the start of each chapter.

In fact, he was an evangelical pastor before he came around to these views, and had to leave the church where he was ministering because he no longer agreed with their Statement of Faith. This makes me very, very glad that the church I’m attending right now doesn’t require members to sign a Statement of Faith – they just ask you to affirm that you’ve accepted Jesus as the Lord of your life and desire to follow him.

The author has had close friends confront him as following heresy and label him a heretic. He comes to these views and beliefs at great personal cost. (It reminds me to go easy on folks who are ministering with evangelical organizations. Although I firmly believe God will save everyone and this glorious belief gives me joy – it’s going to affect their lives and ministries more than it does mine.)

I did like his section on answers to common questions – some of the answers there were well said and helpfully articulate why certain passages don’t rule out universalism.

He uses endnotes – more than 400 of them – and while that does help make the text readable, I would have preferred footnotes, because as it was reading the endnotes when I was all done with the book, I didn’t always remember what it referred to. But that’s a minor quibble.

Here’s a lovely summary at the end of the book:

Throughout this book I’ve tried to look honestly and carefully at the major historical and Biblical issues that relate directly to the concepts of heaven and hell. I personally have concluded that all the people God created will ultimately be in heaven.

Why? Because of who God is.

He’s not partial – favoring some over others. He doesn’t change – acting graciously toward sinners while they’re alive on earth, but then withdrawing His hand of mercy at death. He’s not cruel – able to save all, but choosing rather to consign most of the human race to endless, conscious suffering. And He’s not weak – desiring to save all, but ultimately powerless to do so.

God is good! God is powerful! And God is loving!

Hell is real, but not forever. Jesus Christ succeeded in His mission to seek and save what was lost.


For an articulate, well-organized and well-researched explanation of universalism and the Very Good News, this book is a good place to start.

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Review of Christ Triumphant, by Thomas Allin

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

Christ Triumphant

Universalism Asserted as the Hope of the Gospel on the Authority of Reason, the Fathers, and Holy Scripture

Annotated Edition

by Thomas Allin

edited and with an introductory essay and notes by Robin A. Parry

Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2015. 345 pages.
Reprinted from the 9th ed. London: Williams and Norgate, 1905. (First edition, 1885.)
Starred review

This is a book from the nineteenth century that has been annotated and edited for today. It’s still in an old-fashioned style with very dense reading.

But my goodness! Thomas Allin lays out the case for Universalism unapologetically. Some authors confess to doubts. Not this one! He is completely convinced of the Larger Hope – and his conviction and enthusiasm is contagious and joyous.

The truth is, it’s wonderful to be able to believe that God’s love will indeed triumph and ALL the world will be saved – just like the Bible says!

He covers three arguments, mentioned in the subtitle:

Reason – this makes sense with everything we know of God.

In this section, he points out the logical fallacies in the teaching of a hell of unending torment after death. He goes into great detail and tackles many possible arguments. He points out the many logical fallacies of the belief in unending hell.

Mind you, he’s not saying there is no hell – only that it will not last for all eternity. If you look at the Greek, that’s not what the Bible teaches. But in using reason, he points out such things as the fact that if all sin gets the same punishment – unending torment – then the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. If punishment is designed to restore the sinner – it will be different amounts depending on the sin that needs to be overcome. Which makes a lot more sense, once you think about it.

But there are many other arguments than that one. Here’s an example, chosen somewhat at random:

Pursuing our remarks, I must also remind you of another feature of the popular belief that seems to present a great difficulty; it is what I must call its paltriness, its unworthiness of God. Let us for the moment not think of God as a good, loving, and righteous Being. Let us now simply regard him as great, as irresistible, as almighty. Viewed thus, how difficult is it to accept that account which the ordinary creed gives us of this Being’s attempt at the rescue of his fallen creature, man. An almighty Being puts forth every effort to gain a certain end; sends inspired men to teach others; works miracles, signs, wonders in heaven and on earth, all for this end of man’s safety; nay, at the last, sends forth his own Son – very God – himself almighty. The almighty Son stoops not alone to take our nature on him, but lower still – far lower – stoops to degradation; meekly accepts insults and scourging, bends to the bitter cross even, and all this to gain a certain end. And yet, we are told, this end is not gained after all, man is not saved, for countless myriads are in fact left to hopeless, endless misery; and that, though for every one of these lost ones, so to speak, has been shed the lifeblood of God’s own Son. Now, if I may be permitted to speak freely, it is wholly inconceivable that the definite plan of an almighty Being should end in failure – that this should be the result of the agony of the Eternal Son. God has, in the face of angels and of men, before the universe and its gaze of wonder, entered himself into the arena, become himself a combatant, has wrestled with the foe, and has been defeated. I can bring myself to imagine those who reject the deity of Christ as believing in his defeat; but it is passing strange that those who believe him to be “very God Almighty,” are loudest in asserting his failure.

The second section is called “Universalism Asserted on the Authority of Tradition” – the majority of the church fathers believed in universalism, that at the end of the ages all will be saved and all will be restored.

This section is even denser, and even harder to read – because Thomas Allin pulls out quotations from hundreds of ancient writings. If I thought nineteenth century prose was difficult to read – these are even harder. However, that said, all the quotations make his case so decisively, it feels like overkill.

He goes chronologically through the centuries, beginning with the very earliest church fathers and proves with quotations that many, many of the most respected pillars of the church clearly taught that God will save everyone at the end of the ages.

An important point I had heard before is that the Greek word aionian — which is translated as “eternal” in English didn’t really mean that at all in Greek. “Of the ages” or “age-long” is a better translation, though it’s not simple to translate – because we don’t really even have a word for it in English. But Thomas Allin makes the point that as long as the church fathers were native Greek speakers, the majority teaching of the church was that all mankind would (eventually) be saved, and that hell is restorative, not punitive.

Most of this is too dense to pull out short quotes, but here’s an example when he’s looking at the writings of St. Jerome:

If, he says, we see one falling into sin we indeed are sorry, and hasten to rescue him, but we cannot be saddened, knowing that “with God no rational creature perishes eternally” (Commentary on Galatians 5:22). “Death shall come as a visitor to the impious; it will not be perpetual; it will not annihilate them; but will prolong its visit, till the impiety which is in them shall be consumed” (Commentary on Micah 5:8).

Here’s part of the summary of that section:

There is another point, whose importance – in view of some modern teaching – seems to me very great: it is the teaching of so many, and such illustrious Fathers, that death is no penalty, but is, indeed, a cure; that it is, in fact, the great Potter remolding his own handiwork to restore it to its pristine beauty, and that the sinner’s destruction means but the destruction of the sin – the sinner perishes, the man lives. Such teaching would be significant even in a solitary instance; but here we have witness upon witness, to whom Greek was a familiar and a living tongue, repeating the same striking idea; teaching death to be no penalty, but the remolding of our nature by the Heavenly Artist, and designed to cure sin; teaching, too, that the sinner’s destruction by God is not loss but gain, is not annihilation, but conversion and reformation.

The third section is called “Universalism Asserted on the Authority of Scripture.” Here the author gets especially animated and joyful – pointing out an abundance of passages that, taken at face value, strongly support the larger hope. But those who support the popular view discount them or read into them things that aren’t there – without even realizing that’s what they’re doing.

Here’s one of the many passages discussed in that section:

“But I say, ’love your enemies.’” Will the advocates of endless penalty frankly tell us how that can be reconciled with the letter, or the spirit, of this text? Will they explain why God commands us to love our enemies, when he consigns his own enemies to an endless hell; and why he bids us to do good to those who hate us, when he means for ever to punish and do evil to those who hate him?

Here’s another question:

Is God in earnest in telling us that he reconciles the world? Does he mean what he says, or does he only mean that he will try to reconcile it, but will be baffled? This question often rises unbidden, as we read these statements of the Bible, and compare them with the popular creed, which turns “all” into “some,” when salvation is promised to “all,” and turns the “world,” when that is said to be saved, into a larger or smaller fraction of men.

There’s a whole lot more where that came from. I’ve been considering this for years, but Thomas Allin finds yet more verses I hadn’t thought of yet as teaching universalism – even though I already had noticed many.

The final section is the conclusion and summary of all the arguments that went before and firmly asserts that we can confidently believe in universalism – and a triumphant Christ.

With all earnestness, I repeat that our choice lies between accepting the victory of Christ or of evil, and between these alternatives only. Escape from this dilemma there is none. It avails nothing to diminish, as many now teach, the number of the lost; or to assert that they will be finally annihilated. All such modifications leave quite untouched the central difficulty of the popular creed – the triumph of evil. Sin for ever present with its taint, even in a single instance, is sin triumphant. Sin that God has been unable to remove (and has had no resource but to annihilate the sinner) is sin triumphant and death victorious.

Here’s the final paragraph, which makes my heart sing. Truly, God is loving, and God is good – to all humanity.

For my part, in this promise I believe – in the sole true catholicity of the church of Christ, as destined to embrace all mankind; in the power of his redemption, as something that no will can resist, to which all things must yield one day in perfect submission, love, and harmony. I plead for the acceptance of this central truth as the great hope of the gospel, that the victory of Jesus Christ must be final and complete, i.e., that nothing can impair the power of his cross and passion to save the entire human race. I believe that he shall see of the travail of his soul, and be satisfied. And I feel assured that less than a world saved, a universe restored, could not satisfy the heart of Jesus Christ, or the love of our Father. I ask all fair and reasonable minds to reject as immoral, and incredible the picture of a heavenly Parent, who, being absolutely free and absolute in power and goodness, creates any children of his own, whom he knows to be, in fact, certain to go to endless sin and ruin. Therefore, in these pages I have pleaded for the larger hope. Therefore, I believe in the vision, glorious, beyond all power of human thought fully to realize, of a “paradise regained,” of an universe from which every stain of sin shall have been swept away, in which every heart shall be full of blessedness in which “God shall be all in all.”


Amen, indeed!

I marked many, many passages in this book to post in Sonderquotes – but it’s going to be awhile before I get them all posted. However, you’ll find some, even from the day I’m posting this review.

This book isn’t easy reading. I read a little bit per day over a very long period of time. But its message is so joyful and uplifting. If you would like to believe in universalism but think the Bible or even the historic church teaches differently – I highly, highly recommend delving through this book.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Accidental Saints, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

Accidental Saints

Finding God in All the Wrong People

by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Convergent Books, 2015. 211 pages.
Starred Review

I had checked this book out a few times in the past (as well as the author’s earlier book, Pastrix), but had never gotten around to reading it until a friend mentioned how good it is. Then I checked it out and got started right away – and gobbled it up quickly. I have no idea what took me so long to open it up, but better late than never.

Nadia Bolz-Weber tells stories in this book about ordinary, fallible people in her life who have made her see God’s grace, who have touched her life in miraculous ways.

Her book uses the structure of the church calendar, beginning with All Saints’ Day, where at her church, the House for All Sinners and Saints, they began a tradition of making “saint cookies” on All Saints’ Sunday.

Apart from those who have fallen in combat, Americans tend to forget our ancestors, and we spend as little time as possible publicly mourning them. But in the church, we do the very odd thing of proclaiming that the dead are still a part of us, a part of our lives, and are even an animating presence in the church. Saint Paul describes the saints as “a great cloud of witnesses,” so when they have passed, we still hold them up, hoping perhaps that their virtues – their ability to have faith in God in the face of an oppressive empire or a failing crop or the blight of cancer – might become our own virtue, our own strength.

But while she was thinking about saints who have gone before, her attention was called to a founder of a church there in Denver who did wonderful things but was also a racist. She was challenged to think of that woman as a saint. But I love this reflection:

Personally, I think knowing the difference between a racist and a saint is kind of important. But when Jesus again and again says things like the last shall be first, and the first shall be last, and the poor are blessed, and the rich are cursed, and that prostitutes make great dinner guests, it makes me wonder if our need for pure black-and-white categories is not true religion but maybe actually a sin. Knowing what category to place hemlock in might help us know whether it’s safe to drink, but knowing what category to place ourselves and others in does not help us know God in the way that the church so often has tried to convince us it does.

And anyway, it has been my experience that what makes us the saints of God is not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinners. The title “saint” is always conferred, never earned. Or as the good Saint Paul puts it, “For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). I have come to realize that all the saints I’ve known have been accidental ones – people who inadvertently stumbled into redemption like they were looking for something else at the time, people who have just a wee bit of a drinking problem and manage to get sober and help others to do the same, people who are as kind as they are hostile.

This book tells about those kind of saints – deeply flawed, but people who God works through.

So that’s a description of this book, but it doesn’t completely convey the lovely warm grace the book extends.

And I say lovely – but I should mention that her stories are full of profanity. She doesn’t take a pious pose but presents real people and doesn’t try to cover up her own weaknesses and judgments and anger and need for grace.

Here’s another section I loved, coming after a story of a friend who had done something awful, reminding her of Peter and his denial of Christ:

The adjective so often coupled with mercy is the word tender, but God’s mercy is not tender; this mercy is a blunt instrument. Mercy doesn’t wrap a warm, limp blanket around offenders. God’s mercy is the kind that kills the thing that wronged it and resurrects something new in its place. In our guilt and remorse, we may wish for nothing but the ability to rewrite our own past, but what’s done cannot, will not, be undone.

But I am here to say that in the mercy of God it can be redeemed. I cling to the truth of God’s ability to redeem us more than perhaps any other. I have to. I need to. I want to. For whenwe say “Lord have mercy,” what else could we possibly mean than this truth? And to say “Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy, Lord have mercy” is to lay our hope in the redeeming work of the God of Easter as though our lives depended on it. Because they do. It means that we are an Easter people, a people who know that resurrection, especially in and among the least likely people and places, is the way that God redeems even the biggest messes we make – mine, Peter’s, Bruce’s.

And I loved this section, in a chapter about Judas and the Eucharist:

Jeff, like so many of us, is changed by the word of grace that he hears in church. He is formed by the Word of God. He is given a place where he is told by others that he is a child of God. He is given a place where he can look other people in the eye, other annoying, inconsistent, arrogant people in the eye, hand them bread, and say, “Child of God, the body of Christ, given for you,” and then he, in his own arrogant inconsistencies, has a frame of grace through which to see even the people he can’t stand. I argue that this wouldn’t just happen alone.

This is why we have Christian community. So that we can stand together under the cross and point to the gospel. A gospel that Bonhoeffer said is “frankly hard for the pious to understand. Because this grace confronts us with the truth saying: You are a sinner, a great, desperate sinner, now come as the sinner you are to a God who loves you.”

God wants you, you in your imperfect, broken, shimmering glory.

Amen! This book will uplift you, remind you of your own need for grace, and nudge you to go to a community and receive that grace through other people loved by Jesus.

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Review of Building a Bridge, by James Martin, S. J.

Sunday, December 17th, 2017

Building a Bridge

How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity

by James Martin, S.J.

HarperOne, 2017. 150 pages.
Starred Review

After my son came out as transgender and I began referring to her as my daughter, I’ve been approached by several friends telling me that their own child is transgender, lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Most of those friends also attend my church. To all of those friends, I’m going to start recommending this little book, with its focus on letting LGBT folks know that Jesus loves and accepts them.

This little book was born out of a talk the author gave after the Orlando tragedy. At that time, he was saddened that not many church leaders spoke in support of the LGBT community, which had been so horribly targeted.

I found this revelatory. The fact that only a few Catholic bishops acknowledged the LGBT community or even used the word gay at such a time showed that the LGBT community is still invisible in many quarters of the church. Even in tragedy its members are invisible.

This event helped me to recognize something in a new way: the work of the Gospel cannot be accomplished if one part of the church is essentially separated from any other part. Between the two groups, the LGBT community and the institutional church, a chasm has formed, a separation for which a bridge needs to be built.

This is not a book about doctrine. I found that refreshing. He didn’t even approach the topic of whether or not having sex with someone of the same gender is sinful. (God Believes in Love, by Gene Robinson, is a good book for explaining from the Bible that it isn’t.) In the chapter about respect, he says:

Recognizing that LGBT Catholics exist has important pastoral implications. It means carrying out ministries to these communities, which some dioceses and parishes already do very well. Examples include celebrating Masses with LGBT groups, sponsoring diocesan and parish outreach programs, and in general helping LGBT Catholics feel that they are part of the church, that they are welcomed and loved.

Some Catholics have objected to this approach, saying that any outreach implies a tacit agreement with everything that anyone in the LGBT community says or does. This seems an unfair objection, because it is raised with virtually no other group. If a diocese sponsors, for example, an outreach group for Catholic business leaders, it does not mean that the diocese agrees with every value of corporate America. Nor does it mean that the church has sanctified everything that every businessman or businesswoman says or does. No one suggests that. Why not? Because people understand that the diocese is trying to help the members of that group feel more connected to their church, the church they belong to by virtue of their baptism.

The three things he focuses on are in the subtitle: Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. And he’s not talking only in one direction, but says that both groups need to work on building the bridge from both sides.

On this bridge, as in life, there are tolls. It costs when you live a life of respect, compassion, and sensitivity. But to trust in that bridge is to trust that eventually people will be able to cross back and forth easily, and that the hierarchy and the LGBT community will be able to encounter one another, accompany one another, and love one another.

But I especially liked the section after the essay on bridge-building, because I didn’t expect anything like it when I picked up this book. This section has the title “Biblical Passages for Reflection and Meditation.” The biblical passages that follow are accompanied by questions for reflection and would be interesting to use in a small group setting. No, these are most definitely not the “clobber passages” used to assert that homosexuality is sinful, or explanations for how they should be interpreted. Instead, we have passages about how the church is one body, about the good Samaritan, about Jesus’ encounters with people who’d been excluded by the religious authorities of his day.

I like the passage about the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and especially this question: “At various points in your life, your eyes may also have been ‘kept from recognizing’ the presence of God’s grace in the life of your family member or friend. What opened your eyes?”

Finally, the book ends with “A Prayer for When I Feel Rejected.”

What a lovely book! I heartily hope that someday something similar will be written for the evangelical church. While we are waiting, there is much that Christians of any flavor can find to value in this one. Let’s build bridges, too!

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of Simply Enough! by Tim Timmons

Saturday, November 25th, 2017

Simply Enough!

Jesus Plus Nothing

by Tim Timmons

Embers Press, 2013. 239 pages.
Starred Review

Big thanks to my friend who recommended this book to me. In many ways these thoughts were how I was leaning – they seem like a natural outgrowth of universalism – but I’d never seen it articulated quite this way before.

Here are some questions from the Prologue:

What if Jesus alone is really all we need? What if Jesus is the gospel and not the many things we make it?

Could it be that Jesus wasn’t a Christian, wasn’t the founder of Christianity, and isn’t owned by Christianity?

How could Jesus’ simple invitation “Follow me” be his most revolutionary words?

What if God has planted seeds in all the world’s cultures to prepare people for recognizing Jesus as someone special?

What if Jesus never commanded us to convert people to a religious system?

Is there any chance that it might be possible to be a genuine follower of Jesus and still be a Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, animist, or agnostic? Is it possible that Jesus is the name above all names and not limited to any socio-religious community – not even yours?

This book’s premise is that those last questions can be answered with Yes. And the book explains why and what the ramifications are.

That idea alone – that’s what shook me up. The rest of the book wasn’t as striking to me, but it did renew my desire to simply follow Jesus.

Honestly? This book doesn’t motivate me to want to change churches until I find a group who believes exactly the same things I do. I attend a church full of followers of Jesus. I like the songs we sing and the form our worship takes and the sermons preached and the small groups who speak into my life. I don’t agree with every point of theology that the senior pastor makes. But he is a follower of Jesus and encourages me to follow Jesus, and that’s enough.

This book looks at the ways that we forget that Jesus trumps everything, and he needs to be my end game.

Please listen carefully to this statement: Unless Jesus is your end game, then your life amounts to nothing. Jesus said it himself: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” The apostle Paul agreed, saying that his entire life and his accomplishments were a pile of rubbish (actually manure) compared to knowing Jesus. Without Jesus as your end game, your life will be filled with frustrations in your religious experience. You will have disappointments with life’s expectations, anxiety over whether your children will follow in your religious traditions, concern over the lifestyle decisions of your children and grandchildren, fears for your future security, terror over immediate financial concerns, and discouragement with life’s results.

This book encourages me to not try to convert people. Tell them about Jesus, but let them keep their own culture. And to stop expecting other people to jump through hoops to please God.

It’s all lovely and liberating and reminds me what’s actually important.

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Review of Love from Heaven, by Lorna Byrne

Sunday, October 22nd, 2017

Love from Heaven

Practicing Compassion for Yourself and Others

by Lorna Byrne

Atria Books (Simon and Schuster), 2014. 214 pages.
Starred Review

This is the third book I’ve read by Lorna Byrne, a woman who says she has seen angels all her life. This book was even more inspiring than the previous two.

Lorna says that the angels have taught her to see the force of love coming from people. They have also taught her what it looks like when people lock away their love (which most people do). She has seen love in many different forms. This book is about the different forms love can take, and how we can release the love we’ve locked away.

Here’s how she finishes the first chapter:

The angel with no name has told me that love is love, but that we can love in so many different ways. We all have pure love inside us. We were full of love as newborns and, no matter what has happened to us since then, it is still there. Regardless of what life has thrown at us or what we have done to others, the love within does not diminish. But we all lock much, or all, of this love away deep within us. We need to learn again how to let it out.

Feeling love for anything helps us to stir up that love within us, and allows us to release more of it. Love is stirred up through personal experience of love: feeling it, thinking loving thoughts, or seeing it. We learn to love from each other.

The angels have told me we can all learn to love more frequently, and with a greater intensity. This is why I have written this book.

I especially like the section at the end – a “Seven-day path to love yourself more.” Lorna Byrne does take the view that you can love others better if you love yourself more, and the exercises she gives you will help you do that.

The week after I finished reading this book, our pastor preached on Connection, which set off more thinking – and a blog post on my Sonderjourneys blog. I felt like this book brought a lot of thoughts about love together.

Learning to love more – isn’t that a worthy goal?

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Review of The Day the Revolution Began, by N. T. Wright

Saturday, October 14th, 2017

The Day the Revolution Began

Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion

by N. T. Wright

HarperOne (HarperCollins), 2016. 440 pages.
Starred Review

I’ve read some popular books on the crucifixion lately – most notably Did God Kill Jesus?, by Tony Jones, and A More Christlike God, by Bradley Jersak. The George MacDonald books I’ve been reading for years were what first made me discontent with the explanation I’d been taught. I have become convinced that teaching that Jesus saved us from God does great wrong to God’s love. But how should we look at the cross instead?

Those previous books were popular reading; this one is a book for theologians. It was extremely dense and very long. The author goes deeply into Scripture and explains how his interpretation fits beautifully with what was written there. But – it’s difficult reading and even hard for me to sum up.

However, it’s also lovely. I found myself copying several sections to Sonderquotes. (Take a look there to understand better what’s being said.) N. T. Wright’s view of the cross is not about some kind of pagan sacrifice to satisfy an angry God. It’s about fulfilling God’s covenant with Israel through the forgiveness of sins.

The author places much emphasis on the fact that the early Christians summarized their “good news” by saying that “the Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the Bible.” So he looks at the question of how Jesus’ death was “in accordance with the Bible.” And he takes a fresh look at the gospels and the writings of Paul along the way.

He does blast the “works contract” or the “payment model” of the atonement as a paganized view of the cross. He points out that in Israel’s sacrificial system, the animals sacrificed were not punished for sin. They didn’t bear sin – except the scapegoat on the Day of Atonement, and that one wasn’t killed. Instead of emphasizing death, the sacrifices emphasize the blood – and it is offered as cleansing. The emphasis is on cleansing instead of punishment.

If I start quoting, I’m going to get bogged down. (Do check Sonderquotes, though it will take me awhile to get all the quotations posted.) I don’t quite know how to summarize this book concisely, but I do know it fed my soul. If this is interesting to you, and you can handle some deep waters of theology, I do strongly recommend this book. If not, let me leave you with the last paragraph:

The message for us, then, is plain. Forget the “works contract,” with its angry, legalistic divinity. Forget the false either/or that plays different “theories of atonement” against one another. Embrace the “covenant of vocation” or, rather, be embraced by it as the Creator calls you to a genuine humanness at last, calls and equips you to bear and reflect his image. Celebrate the revolution that happened once for all when the power of love overcame the love of power. And, in the power of that same love, join in the revolution here and now.

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Review of Angels in My Hair, by Lorna Byrne

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

Angels in my Hair

The True Story of a Modern-Day Irish Mystic

by Lorna Byrne

Harmony Books, 2011. First published in the United Kingdom in 2008. 319 pages.
Starred Review

Ever since she was a little girl, Lorna Byrne has been able to see angels and other spirits. This book tells her story. And it’s lovely.

Here’s how she begins the book:

When I was two years old the doctor told my mother I was “retarded.”

When I was a baby, my mother noticed that I always seemed to be in a world of my own. I can even remember lying in a cot – a big basket – and seeing my mother bending over me. Surrounding my mother I saw wonderful bright, shiny beings in all the colors of the rainbow; they were much bigger than I was, but smaller than her – about the size of a three-year-old child. These beings floated in the air like feathers; and I remember reaching out to touch them, but I never succeeded. I was fascinated by these creatures with their beautiful lights. At that time I didn’t understand that I was seeing anything different from what other people saw; it would be much later that I learned from them that they were called angels.

As the months passed, my mother noticed that I’d always be looking or staring somewhere else, no matter what she’d do to try to get my attention. In truth, I was somewhere else: I was away with the angels, watching what they were doing and talking and playing with them. I was enthralled.

I was a late talker, but I had been conversing with angels from very early on. Sometimes we used words as you and I understand them, but sometimes no words were needed – we would know each other’s thoughts. I believed that everyone else could see what I saw, but then the angels told me that I was not to say anything to anyone about seeing them, that I should keep it a secret between us. In fact, for many years I listened to the angels and I didn’t tell people what I saw. It is only now in writing this book that I am for the first time telling much of what I have seen.

The author writes all about growing up with angels around her and about her marriage and children. She didn’t write the book until her children were grown. Now people come to her from all over, asking for prayer.

Her perspective is lovely. I like the way she talks matter-of-factly about how there are always lots of angels around places of worship – churches, synagogues, and mosques alike.

She also talks about souls that stay around after death to comfort their loved ones, or come back to comfort their loved ones. In fact, one of the first spirits she saw, and played with, was her older brother Christopher, who died as a baby.

She sees different kinds of angels – and tells us that everyone has a guardian angel who is with them all their live

Review of A More Christlike God, by Bradley Jersak

Saturday, August 26th, 2017

A More Christlike God

A More Beautiful Gospel

by Bradley Jersak

Plain Truth Ministries, Pasadena, California, 2015. 330 pages.
Starred Review

This is a beautiful book. It made my heart sing. In the introduction, the author offers this as a mantra:

God is Good. God is Love. Life happens but redemption is coming. “The darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (I John 2:8).


I ordered this book from Amazon because I had just finished a book on universalism that I loved, Flames of Love, by Heath Bradley. I was looking for another book on theology, and I’d enjoyed Bradley Jersak’s book, Her Gates Are Never Shut. I liked the description of this book. It turned out to be a wonderful choice.

The book is about exploring what God is like. Here’s where the author starts:

The Christian faith, at its core, is the gospel announcement that God – the eternal Spirit who created, fills and sustains the universe – has shown us who he is and what he’s like – exactly what he’s like – in the flesh and blood human we sometimes call Emmanuel (‘God with us’). Conversely, we believe Jesus has shown us the face and heart of God through the fullness of his life on earth: revealed through eyewitness accounts of his birth, ministry, death and resurrection. We regard this life as the decisive revelation and act of God in time and space. That’s still a faith statement, but for Christians, it is our starting point. To look at Jesus – especially on the Cross, says I John – is to behold the clearest depiction of the God who is love (I John 4:8). I’ve come to believe that Jesus alone is perfect theology.

This does shake up some of the prevalent teaching about God.

When I personally turned my gaze to the God who is completely Christlike, I was confronted with how un-Christlike the ‘church-God’ or even the ‘Bible-God’ can be. Setting Jesus as the standard for perfect theology, many of our current Christian beliefs and practices would obviously face indictment. Even significant swaths of biblical literature don’t line up well with the Christ of the Gospels. Claiming that God is revealed perfectly in Jesus triggers tough questions about the God I once conceived and preached. Jesus’ life and character challenges my religious clichés and standby slogans – especially the rhetoric of supreme power and irresistible force. Christ never reveals God that way in his teachings and especially not in his Passion (that is, Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture and death). Yes, he proves victorious, especially in his resurrection, but remember that Paul resolved to preach ‘Christ and him crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2). you could resist him, you could mock him and beat him up. You could kill him. And we did. Our God is the cruciform Christ, the ‘weakness of God’ (1 Cor. 1:25) who is stronger than men. Why? Because he operates by overcoming love, not by overwhelming force.

Here are some more sections from the first chapter:

Jesus’ favorite image of God was Father (seventy times in the Gospels!). Jesus showed us in the Gospels what fatherhood meant to him: extravagant love, affirmation, affection and belonging. It meant scandalous forgiveness and inclusion. Jesus showed us this supernaturally safe, welcoming Father-love, extended to very messy people before they repented and before they had faith. Or better, he was actually redefining repentance and faith as simply coming to him, baggage and all, to taste his goodness and mercy. He didn’t seem to appreciate our self-loathing. The repentance he wanted was that we would welcome his kindness into our deepest needs and wounds.

After all, this is what Jesus said about himself.

Add to Jesus’ depiction of God as Father his startling Last Supper announcement, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). Somehow we need to let his words jar us again. Maybe we’re too used to the phrase, but it’s what I’ve hinted at in the title. For our own sakes, we might take a break from trying to convince ourselves that Jesus was and is God and to spend this twenty-first century meditating on the truth that God is like Jesus. Exactly like Jesus.

This book explores the ramifications of this observation. And the result is truly beautiful, as the subtitle promises.

Now there’s a whole lot in here that’s wonderful. I’ve marked many sections to add to Sonderquotes, and while I was reading it, I couldn’t stop talking about it with some of my friends.

He especially talks about the theology of the Cross. Here’s a paragraph that sums up the direction he goes. (Kenosis means “self-emptying,” used of Christ in Philippians 2.)

In the next few chapters, we will begin to explore the grand mystery of how a kenotic, cruciform and Christlike God can reign – can be present, active and ‘sovereign’ – in the world, when he is neither coercive nor controlling, but nevertheless infinitely close and caring. We’ll notice together how such a God rules, saves and serves by grounding and filling all that is with the power of love – a divine love with a particular content defined as consent and participation.

Further, we’ll see that we surrender to God’s reign, cooperate with the Spirit’s grace, and receive Christ’s salvation in the same way: by consent and participation. The fullness of God’s saving comes as God participates fully in the human condition – from birth to death – and consents to enduring temptations, trials and even the extreme humiliation of crucifixion. The fullness of our salvation comes as we participate in Christ’s death and as we fully consent – cooperate and surrender – to his grace.

The book is full of the exploration of these ideas and what they mean in our lives. And it gets into big theological questions – and answering them by looking at Christ.

Here’s a section that blew me away. I had never thought of God this way:

In that sense, I say God is in charge, but he is not in control, because he doesn’t do control. Sometimes I wish he did, but as I scan history and humanity, I don’t see him controlling. Sometimes he seems and feels absent, distant and silent, weak or maybe even dead. Did God simply die and abandon us all to go to ‘hell in a hand basket’?

No! Rather than control and coerce, God-in-Christ cares and consents to suffer with and for us. We don’t concede to the false image of a ‘lame duck’ dad who sits by silently, watching his kids getting beaten by the bully. Instead, we look to the true image of the cruciform – Christ himself – the One who heard our groans and came down to suffer and die with us in order to overcome affliction, defeat death and raise us up to live and reign with him.

I also really appreciated the section on the Gospel – and “unwrathing” the Cross. I especially appreciated how he lays out the foundation before he started looking at Gospel metaphors used in the Bible:

I would like to explore some of the salvation metaphors in detail, unpacking key biblical and historical symbols of atonement. Before I do, I must say it again: atonement theories are not the gospel. Across the New Testament, while metaphors do appear to hint at the ‘how’ of atonement, the emphasis is not on these symbolic explanations, but on the story itself. Preaching the gospel never meant theorizing how atonement happens but, rather, proclaiming good news: the events and impacts of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. When the evangelists in the Book of Acts went preaching, whether it’s Peter or Stephen to the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, or Paul and Barnabas to pagan Gentiles in Greek and Roman cities, their message is consistent. They usually follow this basic storyline:

God sent Jesus into the world to announce the good news of peace, to turn us from wickedness and save us (from ourselves).

Jesus was crucified (and sometimes, “You killed him”).

God raised him from the dead.

Jesus is Lord and Saviour; he is making all things new.

Now turn to this Jesus, entrust your life to him, and he will make you new too.

Do you see how this outline follows the Passion story? No theories, no clever analogies. The gospel is what actually happened in space-time history. The facts.

But the best part of this book is that the author really does “unwrath” the gospel. He shows that Jesus was not saving us from the Father. Jesus was fully God at the moment of his crucifixion.

Somehow, we must affirm both truths: that Christ entered an authentic experience of our sense of abandonment and that he never ceased to be God, nor did the Trinity ever cease to be one.

And I loved this point about how the gospel is often presented:

But further, where did we ever get the idea that God is too holy, righteous and pure to look on sin? Did it somehow escape our notice that God is everywhere and sees all things? If God was too holy to look on sin, would he know anything about anyone? In fact, did not Jesus walk, talk and eat with sinners every day of his life? Are we saying that Jesus was not God incarnate, fully God and fully man throughout every moment of his life? What Jesus saw, God saw – sin stains and all.

And here’s a further challenge:

I would challenge readers to find one instance in the four Gospels where Jesus casts the Father as the principal conspirator and punisher on Good Friday. Examine every instance of the gospel being preached in Acts (25% of the book!). See if you can spot even a single hint that God the Father was the culprit in the crucifixion. Yet, paradoxically, God did orchestrate our salvation through it. Even the Pauline language of God sending his Son as an ‘atoning sacrifice’ is a far cry from this picture of a retributive God turning from or lashing out against Jesus in order to fully satiate his wrath.

He sums this up beautifully by referring to “The Gospel in Chairs” – which you can find on Youtube! I strongly recommend watching this. One friend I sent the link to said, “That’s why they call it Good News!”

And that’s the message here:

God never turns away from humanity. God is perfectly revealed in Jesus. When did Jesus ever turn away from sinful humanity and say, “I am too holy and perfect to look on your sin?” Did Jesus ever do anything like that? No. The Pharisees did that. They were too holy and turned away. God is like Jesus, not like a Pharisee.

The gospel is this: when we turn away, he turns toward us. When we run away, he confronts us with his love. When we murder God, he confronts us with his mercy and forgiveness.

Truly beautiful indeed.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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