Archive for the ‘Christian’ Category

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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Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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 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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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com.

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 Reckless Love, by Tom Berlin

Saturday, August 24th, 2019

Reckless Love

Jesus’ Call to Love Our Neighbor

by Tom Berlin

Abingdon Press, 2019. 144 pages.
Starred Review

Reckless Love is written by the lead pastor of my new church, Floris United Methodist. I’ve been attending since July, and have been impressed by his consistent message that God loves everyone, and no matter how sinful, the image of God still shines in everyone. He challenges his listeners to love like Christ and stand with the marginalized.

I’ll admit it. This is the second time I read the book, and I wasn’t as impressed with it the first time, because it didn’t meet my specific expectations. (On the Newbery committee, we called that reviewing the book you want instead of the book you have.) But now that I’ve been sitting under Tom Berlin’s teaching and got a glimpse of his heart, I tried the book again, more ready to learn. The second time around, I was moved and challenged.

When I first read the book, I was attending a different church which was considering adopting a new “Christian Living Statement” that I didn’t agree with. You can read more about why I disagreed so strongly in the Transcending series I posted on my Sonderjourneys blog. I was thinking about visiting Floris United Methodist Church, so I read the pastor’s book. I was hoping that with a title Reckless Love there would be some mention of reaching out to LGBTQ folks. Then I’d be sure the church was as inclusive as I was looking for.

Well, LGBTQ folks are not mentioned in this book. But I visited the church anyway and learned they are mentioned at church. The pastor is leading the church to seek to take concrete steps toward being more inclusive of all ethnicities, all abilities, and all sexual orientations. He talks about standing with the marginalized as Jesus did. And he clearly means to apply toward LGBTQ people the challenges to love found in this book.

Taking the book together with his sermons, I’m freshly challenged to open my heart toward people in need, to be curious about people, and to work to see people. I work in a public library with many homeless customers, and it’s easy for me to overlook or dismiss some of the people I see every day. This book challenges me with the example of Jesus.

The six chapters are based on the acronym BE LOVE: Begin with Love, Expand the Circle, Lavish Love, Openhearted Love, Value the Vulnerable, and Emulate Christ.

Thinking about churches being more inclusive, I appreciated this section in the “Expand the Circle” chapter:

One look at the group Jesus first assembled as his followers tells us that something is lost when sameness is the defining characteristic of a church. Jesus’ example teaches us that something is wrong when we leave out people who differ from us and only feel at home when everyone is the same. His goal is not to make us more of what we are, but help us to become what we can be. That requires us to expand our understanding of what it means to love our neighbor. Christ shows us that the only way to learn the greatest commandment is to have people in our lives who we personally find so difficult to love that we have to get up every morning and pray to our Creator for a love we could not produce on our own. The first disciples had to ask God to expand their hearts so they could overlook the past sins of the tax collector, put up with the ideological torpedo the zealot launched at breakfast, ignore the angry brothers’ latest argument, or figure out if it was time to confront the group treasurer they were beginning to think was embezzling funds.

As I am thinking about how Jesus wants us to love rather than to judge, I was especially challenged by sections like this in the “Value the Vulnerable” chapter:

I would like to love other people enough to go to extraordinary measures to open the door and invite them in, rather than passively allow the door to close, go on my way and keep them out. Jesus said, “I am the gate. . . . All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them” (John 10:7).

Jesus encouraged his followers to become door openers rather than gatekeepers. He hoped that once people experienced the goodness of God, the love of God, and the grace of God, they would reside in it and be free to share it with others. This is why people who were sinners, outcasts, and poor loved Jesus and felt such joy in his presence. They were unaccustomed to being loved by someone who was talking about the ways of God. They knew that Jesus valued them, that he saw their worth, not one that they had earned or instilled within themselves. He saw their intrinsic value, the image of God that was imprinted upon their lives.

How does one become a door opener who leads others to the joy of Christ rather than a gatekeeper who judges others? Observing Jesus enables us to see how to value a vulnerable person.

This book can challenge you if you let it. I love the emphasis that God loves us and placed his image in us, and that’s why we can love. Here’s a section from the very end, challenging the reader to go out and apply what they’ve learned:

We must see this clearly, or we will miss the point of our life in Christ. Christ’s followers today receive the same calling and commission. If we miss this, it will have consequences. Rather than be witnesses to Christ in the way we love God, others, and ourselves, we will begin to think that Jesus came to make us nicer or a little more thoughtful, the kind of people who remember birthdays and select more personal Christmas gifts. Rather than tell others about God’s grace or offer mercy, we will believe that living a Christian life is about feeling forgiven of our sins. Rather than telling others about the habit-changing, bondage-breaking, turnaround-making power Jesus can have in our lives, we will cultivate a relationship with Christ that is so personal that we never share it with anyone else. Rather than speaking out and working for justice with those who hold position and power in our community and society, we will spend our time telling the already convinced how much better the world would be if it were not exactly as it is. Rather than offering acts of solace to those who grieve, comfort to the sick, or kindness of conversation with prisoners or returning citizens, we will simply offer thanks that we are not in such predicaments ourselves.

Jesus takes us on a journey so that he can deploy us on a mission. He offers his love to us so that we will share it with the world. He does this because he loves us. The first disciples knew they were beloved, not only because of what Jesus did for them, but because Jesus believed in them when he called them to go to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. He knew what they could do for him. Jesus believed in them more than they believed in themselves. He saw more potential in them than they ever thought possible in their lives. He forgave them for what they were not, just as he celebrated all that they were. All of this is what is at the heart of being beloved by another. When we are beloved, we gain the confidence another has in us and make it our own. That confidence transforms how we think of ourselves. It guides the journey that, in the end, leads to who we become. Such love, once extended, is what stirs up a new sense of possibility in our lives.

This is the love God has for you, and the belief God holds in you. We must have faith that God believes in us, in our ability to love our neighbor, to treat ourselves properly in this life, and to worship the Lord with our heart, mind, soul, and strength.

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Review of The Universal Christ, by Richard Rohr

Monday, August 12th, 2019

The Universal Christ

How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe

by Richard Rohr

Convergent Books (Penguin Random House), 2019. 260 pages.
Starred Review
Review written August 9, 2019, from my own copy, ordered via Amazon.com

This book hit the spot for me, and came my way exactly when I needed to read it. I had recently switched churches because my former church had adopted a policy that declares transgender people are wrong to change their gender and that opposes same sex marriage. As a universalist, I already had some disagreements with their theology, so I’ve been thinking about theology and inclusiveness, and was very ready for this book.

I will freely admit that some of the ideas went over my head. There’s a lot of mysticism here, a lot of talk about insubstantial things. But I marked fifty passages to put in Sonderquotes, and I’ll be going over these ideas again. Maybe after a few times through, more will sink in. And I’m sure of this: These are uplifting and beautiful ideas. They’re based in Scripture and I believe they honor God. I’d like to put these concepts into my life.

This book is about trying to grasp – with experience and with our spirits, not necessarily our minds – the concept of Christ, who has been present much longer than the human Jesus.

Here are some questions from the beginning of the book:

Across the thirty thousand or so varieties of Christianity, believers love Jesus and (at least in theory) seem to have no trouble accepting his full humanity and his full divinity. Many express a personal relationship with Jesus – perhaps a flash of inspiration of his intimate presence in their lives, perhaps a fear of his judgment or wrath. Others trust in his compassion, and often see him as a justification for their worldviews and politics. But how might the notion of Christ change the whole equation? Is Christ simply Jesus’s last name? Or is it a revealing title that deserves our full attention? How is Christ’s function or role different from Jesus’s? What does Scripture mean when Peter says in his very first address to the crowds after Pentecost that “God has made this Jesus . . . both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36)? Weren’t they always one and the same, starting at Jesus’s birth?

Here’s another paragraph from that first chapter:

A merely personal God becomes tribal and sentimental, and a merely universal God never leaves the realm of abstract theory and philosophical principles. But when we learn to put them together, Jesus and Christ give us a God who is both personal and universal. The Christ Mystery anoints all physical matter with eternal purpose from the very beginning. (We should not be surprised that the word we translate from the Greek as Christ comes from the Hebrew word mesach, meaning “the anointed” one, or Messiah. He reveals that all is anointed!) Many are still praying and waiting for something that has already been given to us three times: first in creation; second in Jesus, “so that we could hear him, see him with our eyes, watch him, and touch him with our hands, the Word who is life” (1 John 1-2); and third, in the ongoing beloved community (what Christians call the Body of Christ), which is slowly evolving throughout all of human history (Romans 8:18ff). We are still in the Flow.

As I said, I read this book at exactly the right time. Many of the ideas resonated beautifully with other books I’ve been reading, indeed, some of those books were quoted. But they were all brought together in a new way, taking things I’d been thinking about and going further.

An especially lovely resonance happened on Monday this past week. I was looking up a George MacDonald quote to insert in my blog series A Universalist Looks at the New Testament, and when I found it, discovered that my favorite George MacDonald Unspoken Sermon, “Justice” is available online, and I had a lovely time rereading it. This sermon explains why George MacDonald does not believe God’s justice and God’s mercy are opposed to one another and why he finds the idea that Jesus had to save us from God’s wrath utterly abhorrent.

Well, I read that sermon in the afternoon. Later that same day, I picked up this book to read the next chapter – and the chapter was called “Why Did Jesus Die?” and also explains the problems with the penal substitution theory of the atonement.

At best, the theory of substitutionary atonement has inoculated us against the true effects of the Gospel, causing us to largely “thank” Jesus instead of honestly imitating him. At worst, it led us to see God as a cold, brutal figure, who demands acts of violence before God can love his own creation. Now, there is no doubt that both Testaments are filled with metaphors of atonement, sacrifice, expiation, ransom, paying the price, opening the gates, et cetera. But these are common temple metaphors that would’ve made sense to a Jewish audience. Anthropologically speaking, these words and assumptions reflect a magical or what I call “transactional” way of thinking. By that I mean that if you just believe the right thing, say the right prayer, or practice the right ritual, things will go right for you in the divine courtroom. In my experience, this way of thinking loses its power as people and cultures grow up and seek actual changes in their minds and hearts. Then, transformational thinking tends to supplant transactional thinking.

There are so many inspiring tidbits in this book. They are big ideas, and I’m going to need to go over it all again to try to grasp it better.

Overwhelmingly, this book is about the love of Christ, all around us and within us. And changing our lives and our vision.

Mostly, we must remember that Christianity in its maturity is supremely love-centered, not information- or knowledge-centered, which is called “Gnosticism.” The primacy of love allows our knowing to be much humbler and more patient, and helps us to recognize that other traditions – and other people – have much to teach us, and there is also much we can share with them. This stance of honest self-knowledge and deeper interiority, the head (Bible), heart (Experience), and body (Tradition) operating as one, is helping many to be more integrated and truthful about their own actual experience of God.

This book is not about doing or achieving, and I’m finding words like these freeing and inspiring:

Once the real inner journey begins – once you come to know that in Christ, God is forever overcoming the gap between human and divine – the Christian path becomes less about climbing and performance, and more about descending, letting go, and unlearning. Knowing and loving Jesus is largely about becoming fully human, wounds and all, instead of ascending spiritually or thinking we can remain unwounded. (The ego does not like this fundamental switch at all, so we keep returning to some kind of performance principle, trying to climb out of this messy incarnation instead of learning from it. This is most early-stage religion.)

His idea of the Universal Christ is fundamentally BIG:

To be loved by Jesus enlarges our heart capacity. To be loved by the Christ enlarges our mental capacity. We need both a Jesus and a Christ, in my opinion, to get the full picture. A truly transformative God – for both the individual and history – needs to be experienced as both personal and universal. Nothing less will fully work. If the overly personal (even sentimental) Jesus has shown itself to have severe limitations and problems, it is because this Jesus was not also universal. He became cozy and we lost the cosmic. History has clearly shown that worship of Jesus without worship of Christ invariably becomes a time-and culture-bound religion, often ethnic or even implicitly racist, which excludes much of humanity from God’s embrace….

For you who have loved Jesus – perhaps with great passion and protectiveness – do you recognize that any God worthy of the name must transcend creeds and denominations, time and place, nations and ethnicities, and all the vagaries of gender, extending to the limits of all we can see, suffer, and enjoy? You are not your gender, your nationality, your ethnicity, your skin color, or your social class. Why oh why, do Christians allow these temporary costumes, or what Thomas Merton called the “false self,” to pass for the substantial self, which is always “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3)? It seems that we really do not know our own Gospel.

It’s tempting to keep finding bits to quote, but stay tuned to Sonderquotes, and you’ll see many more inspiring words from this book.

Try it out – perhaps the timing will be as lovely for you to hear these inspiring words as it was for me.

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Review of A Bigger Table, by John Pavlovitz

Friday, April 19th, 2019

A Bigger Table

Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community

by John Palovitz

Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. 192 pages.
Starred Review
Review written April 11, 2019, from a book purchased via Amazon.com

A Bigger Table is all about Christians reflecting our God, who pours out his great love on everyone. John Pavlovitz talks about a bigger table that includes radical hospitality, total authenticity, true diversity, and agenda-free community.

He begins by telling his story, about his upbringing in the Catholic church and how he eventually became an evangelical pastor. But he had made some LGBTQ friends and his brother came out as gay, and when he started to question the church’s attitude toward them, he got fired. Now he talks about that as the best thing that ever happened to him.

A lot of churches are not welcoming. He talks about that in the beginning section, “Big God, Small Table”:

There are many reasons the local church is so vulnerable to such all-or-nothing extremism; not least among them is the way so much of our Christianity has been immersed in relentless us-vs.-them culture-war rhetoric. Scaring people into the kingdom by enlisting them for combat has been the evangelical church in America’s bread and butter for the past fifty years, and it’s worked out pretty well. It’s been a reliable way to generate urgency among the faithful and to get people worked up, but ultimately it’s also been costly. Frame the spiritual journey as a stark good-vs.-evil battle of warring sides long enough and you’ll eventually see the Church and those around you in the same way, too. You’ll begin to filter the world through the lens of conflict. Everything becomes a threat to the family; everyone becomes a potential enemy. Fear becomes the engine that drives the whole thing. When this happens, your default response to people who are different or who challenge you can turn from compassion to contempt. You become less like God and more like the Godfather. In those times, instead of being a tool to fit your heart for invitation, faith can become a weapon to defend yourself against the encroaching sinners threatening God’s people – whom we conveniently always consider ourselves among. Religion becomes a cold, cruel distance maker, pushing from the table people who aren’t part of the brotherhood and don’t march in lockstep with the others.

Here’s a paragraph from the chapter where he talks about getting fired:

It’s easy for religious people to be intimidated by those seeking a bigger table. This was always the Pharisees’ struggle. It wasn’t a lack of faith or lack of love for God, but a resistance to the idea that God could speak in new ways, could come packaged differently than they expected, and could exist outside the box they built for God. When we dare to step outside that box, when we ask the most difficult questions, and when we unearth our own spiritual junk, others are reminded of the unattended longing in their own hears. Christian people rarely get angry at theological claims I make in my blog posts or when I’m speaking somewhere, but almost always at the questions I ask, because they are forced to entertain those questions themselves whether they care to or not. Those questions press against the tender spots where their doubt sits buried just below the surface.

Then he talks about building a bigger table. And it’s all based on the ministry Jesus had.

One of the most powerful examples of Jesus’ table ministry is recorded by all four of the Gospel biographies. Jesus has been teaching in a remote spot and the place is packed. It’s getting late and those gathered, miles away from the nearest Chick-fil-A, are getting hungry. Jesus, drawn to the need by his disciples, responds by feeding the whole lot of them with the small bit of food present. As the story goes, thousands have their bellies filled and some get to-go boxes. As so often happens when reading these stories, we can easily be tripped up by the miraculous aspect of the moment, preoccupied by the mechanism rather than the meaning of it all. If we see this meal as merely a how story, we will be forever burdened with intellectually explaining the exponential multiplication of the bread and fish, trying to wrap our minds around the physics and food science involved – and we will be doomed to miss the point gloriously. But if we view this as a who story and a why story, we will find the clear invitation for we who seek the ways of Jesus. We can see the heart of God for hungry people. We can see the tremendous challenge of expanding the table. This is where the miracle takes place.

I can’t fathom the transformation of a basket of food to accommodate a multitude (heck, I’m not even sure how our toaster works), but I can see the boundless compassion of the open table and endeavor to re-create that on whatever spot I stand at any given moment and with the people in my midst. Jesus feeds people. That’s what he does. And as striking as what he does is, equally revelatory is what he doesn’t do here. There’s no altar call, no spiritual gifts assessment, no membership class, no moral screening, no litmus test to verify everyone’s theology and to identify those worthy enough to earn a seat at the table. Their hunger and Jesus’ love for them alone, nothing else, make them worthy. This is a serious gut check for us.

I like his metaphors. One is about showing people the ocean:

For me, going to the beach is always like meeting God. There’s that moment when you make your way down the path that cuts through the dunes. As you walk farther, the quiet noise in the distance gradually becomes a welcome roar. You crane your neck as if unsure it’s all still there. Your pace quickens as the sound rises and the wind grows, and suddenly you’re emptied out into the full, vivid majesty of it all. And you breathe. It never fails to level me. It is never commonplace. It is always holy ground. If you’ve been to the beach, you understand exactly what I mean. If you haven’t – well, you just won’t. That’s the thing about the ocean: until you experience it, no one can explain it to you, and once you have experienced it, no one needs to. The love of God is this way. For far too long, Christians have been content with telling people about the ocean and believing that is enough.

We’ve spoken endlessly of a God whose lavish, scandalous love is beyond measure, whose forgiveness reaches from the furthest places and into our deepest personal darkness. We’ve spun gorgeous, fanciful tales of a redeeming grace that is greater than the worst thing we’ve done and available to anyone who desires it. We’ve talked about a Church that welcomes the entire hurting world openly with the very arms of Jesus. We’ve talked and talked and talked – and much of the time we’ve been a clanging gong, our lives and shared testimony making a largely loveless noise in their ears. They receive our condemnation. They know our protests. They experience our exclusion. They endure our judgment. They encounter our bigotry. And all of our flowery words ring hollow. It’s little wonder they eventually choose to walk away from the shore, the idea as delivered through our daily encounters with them not compelling enough to pursue for themselves. Our commitments to hospitality, authenticity, diversity, and community can be empty words, too, if we don’t put them into practice.

Church, the world doesn’t need more talking from us. It doesn’t need our sweet platitudes or our eloquent speeches or our passionate preaching or our brilliant exegesis. These are all just words about the ocean, and ultimately they fail to adequately describe it. The world needs the goodness of God incarnated in the flesh of the people who claim to know this good God. As they meet us, they need to come face-to-face with radical welcome, with unconditional love, with counterintuitive forgiveness. They need to experience all of this in our individual lives and in the Church, or they will decide that it is all no more than a beautiful but ultimately greatly exaggerated story about sand and waves and colors that cannot be described.

He also talks about gaining new eyes:

I want you to think about your eyes for a moment. I want you to think about the way you see the world, especially if you’re a person of faith. When you encounter war, poverty, violence, addiction, human trafficking, and all the other things that horrify you, what story do you tell yourself? Usually we fall into one of two camps. Some Christians look at the dysfunction, injustice, and discord around them as sure signs of a fallen creation: proof of a sinful, rebellious culture rejecting God and paying the price. They see suffering as the by-product of wickedness, the unpleasantness they rub shoulders with every day clear symptoms of the moral decay of everything. These followers of Jesus primarily see sin, and the lens through which they view the world around them and the people in their path. With this as their primary filter, they tend to respond with a burden to save souls. The answer to everything becomes conversion, salvation as eternal rescue from the cancer that afflicts us all. It is next-life focused. Or they see Jesus as an instant, magic cure-all for the behavior in others that they find objectionable or uncomfortable. They imagine that simply “coming to Jesus” will eliminate all the immorality that may or may not bother Jesus – but that certainly bothers them. Apparently they’ve come across more fully perfected Christians than I have.

Other followers of Jesus see something different when they look at the mess in front of them. They see pain. They see need. They see longing. They see an opportunity to bring restoration here and now. They are focused as much on this world as they are on the next. These, I’ll contend, are the eyes of Christ, and these are the eyes of those who would build the bigger table. We are learning to see differently than we once did.

In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus looks upon the crowd gathered before him and is deeply burdened by what he sees, not because of what they are doing or not doing, but because of what is being done to them and what it is creating in them (9:35-38). He is moved in that moment, not by some moral defect but by their internal turmoil. Just as when he feeds the multitudes, Jesus is not concerned with behavior modification, as we so often imagine; he is most concerned with meeting the needs that prevent people from knowing their belovedness, and he offers an expression of God’s provision. Matthew records that Jesus, seeing those in front of him, notes not their conduct, but their condition, observing that they are “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” This realization prompts a passionate, public appeal for those who would do the work of restoration and healing in the name of God. The distinction between seeing sin and seeing suffering is revelatory if we really let it seep into the deepest hollows of our hearts. Jesus’ default response to the fragile humanity before him is not contempt but compassion.

That gives you a taste of what’s in this book – an effort to follow Jesus and be like Jesus in making our churches more welcoming to more people, of sitting down together and listening to more opinions and caring about more people.

I especially like the chapter where he talks about the Mama Bears – because that’s a Facebook group I’m part of, a private group for Christian mothers of LGBTQ kids. The group is wonderfully supportive, and they are where I first heard of John Pavlovitz, since the group reached out to him after he wrote a blog post, “If I Have Gay Children,” talking about how what is important is loving those children. So, yes, the bigger table involves welcoming LGBTQ folks, too.

The expanding of the table isn’t an effort to abandon our Christianity or to reject the Church. It’s an attempt to jettison everything else but that which is essential to reflecting Jesus in the world and to sharing in redemptive community with people in a way that is so loving, so embracing, and so open, that it seems queer to the rest of the world. And that will be what brings revolution.

Of course, as a universalist, I especially like the chapter called “Fear Less.” He doesn’t call himself a universalist, but he does say things like this:

One of the great comforts in my travels to build a bigger table and to right-size God has been a simple reality that I’ve embraced, one that I hope seeps deep into your heart whatever your theological leanings are: God is not out to squash you. This is an incredibly difficult truth to claim if you’ve experienced religion through the lens of fear that told you otherwise. . . .

For much of my life, this guilt, pressure, and fear of exposure had left me fairly exhausted. But I am slowly but surely walking into a new story, gradually but most definitely jettisoning those things that don’t ring true anymore and traveling much lighter. My reverence for God has never been greater, my wonder never more full, my desire to know my Maker never stronger. The difference is, I now see God through the lens of one who is beloved, not one who is beloved with conditions. Life now is not a test to try and reach God, but an opportunity to notice God. I am seeking Jesus more deeply than ever – not to escape punishment, but to discover life as it is best lived. My faith is not about fleeing something horrible, but running toward something beautiful. I am daily responding in gratitude for the beauty of the gift of this world, not in the hope I can eventually escape it. I come to the Scriptures now not as divine dictation, but as the journal entries of those who came before me and who have walked this road of asking, seeking, and knocking. . . .

I return again and again to this place, to the belief that God is fully aware of the road you and I are on, that God is far more merciful and forgiving than we would ever be with one another or with ourselves. My prayers are different now because of it.

After all, this is God we’re talking about. If God is everything we’ve been led to believe God is, God has such patience with us that, were we to embrace it, it would make us rightly fearless. And once the fear of “getting it wrong” departs we can be completely ourselves, sharing the full contents of our hearts – hopefully with God’s people, but at the very least with God.

This book contains a lovely vision of reaching more people by demonstrating the amazing love of God for all people. Encouraging and inspiring.

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Review of Creation and the Cross, by Elizabeth A. Johnson

Monday, March 18th, 2019

Creation and the Cross

The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril

by Elizabeth A. Johnson

Orbis Books, 2018. 238 pages.
Starred Review
Review written March 18, 2019, from my own copy, purchased via amazon.com

I’ve been reading several books on theology lately. I think I heard of this book on a twitter thread after following some other authors I liked. I’m especially interested in the theology of the cross. I don’t like the Satisfaction Theory, and am reading about alternatives.

This book has a focus on a theology that cares about the entire created world. However, along the way, she writes a lovely explanation of why Anselm’s satisfaction theory made sense in feudal times, but doesn’t really match with what the Bible teaches and doesn’t make as much sense with our mindset today.

In the Introduction, the author gives us the questions that drive this book:

Many theologians have written of human redemption. But how in our day can we understand cosmic redemption? At a time of advancing ecological devastation, what would it mean to rediscover this biblical sense of the natural world groaning, hoping, waiting for liberation? What would it mean for the churches’ understanding, practice, and prayer to open the core Christian belief in salvation to include all created beings?

Now, I attended Biola University, and I know I learned about Anselm, who proposed the Satisfaction Theory for understanding the cross. But I hadn’t thought about what Elizabeth Johnson points out — that this theory wasn’t proposed until a thousand years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.

The author takes on Anselm’s theory head on. She’s looking for a theory that embraces creation, and his theory “simply swept away concerns about creation’s groaning.” Her entire first section is called “Wrestling with Anselm,” and she adapts the format of his writings to use in this book – writing the chapters as a series of conversations with a student, just as Anselm did.

My fundamental reason for reading this book was dissatisfaction with Anselm’s theory (even though I was only vaguely aware that it came from him), so I especially liked that part of the book.

She puts Anselm’s theory in his own cultural context:

By the eleventh century European society had shifted from the law of the Roman empire, wherever it had extended, to a feudal system of justice. In the absence of the central authority of national states, the authority of a local ruler grounded and safeguarded the order of a whole region. His word was law. Violations of the law were more than simply disobedience to a rule; they were an offense against the dignity and honor of the feudal overlord. The crucial point is that these insults had an impact on society. Disobedience to the lord’s word created disorder in the social fabric, or as we might say today, disruptions to the common good. To restore order, the law-breaker either had to be punished or had to pay compensation to rectify the situation. In Anglo-Saxon regions a graduated system of fines was actually devised whereby the offender paid due recompense for his or her criminal offense. This payback, called satisfaction, restored the honor of the lord, which in turn returned society to a peaceful, orderly operation.

The pattern ran through all levels of society. The amount of satisfaction required corresponded to the social status of the offended party, so that if one insulted a milkmaid less was due than if one somehow offended the lady of the manor. But in either case the requirement to restore the social order by means of some payment was non-negotiable. By Anselm’s time the practice of satisfaction had become an integral part of the powerful feudal structure.

The author quotes Anselm, showing how he brought these ideas into his theology.

But that’s not how Jesus presented his Father! I love this paragraph:

All four gospels depict how in his teaching and practice Jesus revealed a different, non-feudal picture of the way God deals with sin. Think of the parables of the shepherd going after his lost sheep and the woman searching for her lost coin, both rejoicing with their neighbors when they find the one who has strayed, no satisfaction needed. Remember the parable of the forgiving father who runs out to embrace the returning prodigal son, throwing a party to welcome him back, no payback required. Recall the paralytic who, after Jesus assured him that his sins were forgiven, took up his pallet and walked away, no atonement given. Call up the story of the Pharisee and the publican in the temple; when the publican prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” he goes home justified, nothing more required. Keep in mind Luke’s depiction of Jesus himself, forgiving his executioners as his life ebbed away, no satisfaction needed.

Elizabeth Johnson points out additional problems with the Satisfaction Theory. First and probably most important, it makes God morally repulsive.

Anyone who understands love intuits the mistake preachers make when they say God, when offended, needs to be appeased by someone’s death. This goes against the best instincts of the human experience of love, and sets an appalling example.

A second problem is that it focuses entirely on the death of Jesus, as if his resurrection weren’t important.

In the presence of Jesus, the Crucified One who is now the Living One, his disciples proclaimed the good news that evil does not have the last word. Hope is born for a future for all others who have come to grief, for all the defeated and the dead, even as crosses keep on being set up in history. Talk about salvation!

Besides that, it also leaves out the life and ministry of Jesus.

Jesus’ preaching of the coming reign of God, by turns joyful and challenging, refreshed people’s social situations as well as their relationship to God. His healings, exorcisms, inclusive table fellowship, and partisanship for marginalized people, interpreted by his preaching, already offered an anticipation of the world in which God will reign, a world without tears. Violent death was the price Jesus paid for this prophetic ministry, to which he was faithful with a tenacity that would not quit. Historically it was neither foreordained nor accidental but was carried out by the power of empire to which his movement posed a threat. He suffered for the way he loved God and neighbor, not because he needed to pay a debt to divine honor.

She explains a significant fourth problem is that Anselm’s theory sacralizes violence.

By turning the historically unjust execution of Jesus into some kind of necessary good, the theory has offered a subtle but real religious justification for the evil of violence. Given the way divine honor is recompensed, it sets up violence as divinely sanctioned. Politically this translates into a blessing on the use of force, specifically the use of aggressive force by powerful people. The thinking runs this way: God used violence for a good purpose, so why shouldn’t we? Such reasoning turns a manifest evil, the torture and execution of an innocent person, into a “good” that continues to harm other people. In a word, the atonement paradigm sanctifies violence.

I hadn’t ever noticed before that this view glorifies suffering.

I have heard homilies where the suffering of Jesus gets connected with obedience. For example, he had to go to Jerusalem to fulfill his Father’s will that he should suffer and die. We are supposed to imitate him in his obedience. You already covered the problem of the disastrous image of a God who wills suffering to compensate for offended divine honor. But this makes it worse. I have to say that obedience to a male authority figure is not a big value in my life, let alone obedience to a male authority that wills my suffering. As a spiritual path, this is downright toxic.

Here’s another point close to that one:

A sixth criticism is the introduction of an ethic of submission in the face of injustice. Take away the resurrection and the public ministry of Jesus, bring forth suffering, perversely, as a good in itself, and the cumulative effect is to allow actual injustice on the earth to continue without challenge. Edward Schillebeeckx offers a sharp insight about how this happened. When theology pondered the cross as a free-standing event, suffering became a way of avenging God’s honor to our benefit, instead of the price Jesus paid for fidelity to his ministry. It appeared that God was pleased with the evil of killing an innocent person. God’s act of overturning the judgment of the authorities by raising Jesus from the dead disappeared from view. In these ways the satisfaction theory “tamed” the critical force of the crucifixion, making it into a tool that integrates wrongful suffering into the way things necessarily are. While this may not be the exact significance that Anselm gave to his theory, it is the way it was preached and written about in many spiritual books. People were encouraged to suffer and endure injustice without resistance rather than challenge existing wrongful circumstances. Both Catholic and Reformation traditions have walked down this path.

The author points out how this was used to teach slaves to submit to slavery and still has impact today:

Feminist theologians have criticized the debilitating psychological effects fostered particularly on women by the satisfaction theory’s interpretation of the cross. In a strange way the innocent Christ who suffered willingly on behalf of others has traditionally been held up as a model for women in a way different from men. It is women who are supposed to serve silently, obediently, without question, in imitation of the Crucified One. Such glorification of passivity undermines the agency that rightly belongs to women as adult human beings, all the while giving traditional expectations of women and their gendered roles in church and society a powerful divine gloss.

This kind of theology can prove intensely dangerous when domestic situations turn abusive, since holding up passive submission to victimization as a virtue undermines women’s rightful ability to protect themselves from violent, battering partners. In this vein women have also critiqued the satisfaction theory for the kind of parent-child relationship it seems to portray. A psychological pattern of needing to placate an angry parent, of buying love and forgiveness through sacrifice, is debilitating to healthy child development. Furthermore, the notion of a father who needs the death of a son is abhorrent, no matter what benefit might accrue to others. Salvation is no excuse for child abuse on a cosmic scale.

And the final criticism she lists fits well with her theme.

A seventh criticism highly relevant today is the ecological silence maintained by Anselm. Given its focus on human sin and the need to restore divine honor, the satisfaction theory obviously neglects God’s salvific presence in the rest of creation. It assumes a view of the natural world as merely a stage on which the important drama of human salvation is played out. Thus it fails to build up faith convictions that lead to ecological commitments.

By contrast, as we will see, biblical themes of the community of creation, God’s covenant with all creatures of flesh on the earth, incarnation, resurrection, and hope for a renewed heaven and earth where justice dwells open up a tremendous vision of salvation not only for humans but for all creatures who are other-than-human and the ecological niches in which they dwell and interact.

So, having looked closely at Anselm’s theory, she is then able to move to the true focus of the book:

For Christian theology, the specific focus of seeking understanding about this matter gravitates toward Jesus Christ. We come then to the question on which this whole work rests, a question that is as rife with assumptions as is Anselm’s and every other theology of salvation. The question is this: How can the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ be understood as good news for the whole created world, including human beings, to the praise of God and to practical and critical effect?

Now, I’ll admit – my focus in reading the book was not the same as the author’s focus in writing the book. But I exquisitely loved what she showed about the God of the Old Testament in developing her theology – He is a God of overwhelming, abundant, forgiving love. Yes! This matches what I read in the Old Testament.

Now I’ll start quoting some passages I marked:

The God of Israel is not a generic God but one whose character bends toward those who suffer injustice, with intent to save. Israel knows its God by this name, a name attached to freedom: “I am YHWH your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Ps 81:10). . . .

Divine identification with the plight of the dispossessed in the event of the exodus makes understandable the constant return throughout the Bible to themes of God’s special concern for poor, powerless, oppressed, and marginalized persons. Gracious and merciful, God acts to make a new future possible. Such compassionate concern also undergirds the great biblical ethic of hospitality: “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt” (Ex 22:21); and more positively, “You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19). The people liberated from slavery must act in like manner as the Holy One who delivered them. . . .

It flowers in psalms of praise: “YHWH is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. YHWH is good to all, and compassionate toward all he has made” (Ps 145:8). It appears also in psalms where a person in trouble cries out to God for rescue: the insolent rise up against me and a band of ruffians seeks my life, “But you, O YHWH are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15). Based on the revelation flowing from the event of the exodus, these adjectives bear witness to YHWH’s bedrock, reliable goodness and commitment that are everywhere assumed.

But what about the wrath of God?

The real issue, though, is how to understand divine anger in the context of overwhelming graciousness and mercy. The danger is that within a patriarchal, punitive setting, speaking of a wrathful God has been used to justify holy wars and torture, hostility to outsiders, and debilitating guilt in sensitive consciences. But righteous anger is a different breed of cat. It is profoundly ethical. It waxes hot in moral outrage because something good is being violated. Arising from love, it awakens energy to act to change the situation. . . .

In the context of God’s graciousness and mercy, divine anger functions for justice. It bespeaks a mode of caring response in the face of what harms beloved human beings or the created world itself. “The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor; to God it is a disaster,” writes Abraham Heschel. Divine wrath is a worthy response. True, it lasts but a moment; true, it is instrumental, aimed at change and conversion. But it stands as an antidote to sentimentality.

And she looks at the strong theme of redemption – in the Old Testament.

The idea of a God who redeems Israel and who therefore can be called the Redeemer became firmly fixed in Israel’s religious imagination well before the disastrous exile in Babylon. In the dynamic way that language works, the technical meaning of redeem broadened out over time to include connotations of God’s helping, rescuing, liberating, restoring, forgiving, showing steadfast love, comforting, taking away fear, and especially caring for the poor and defenseless. The language of redeeming also became associated with the act of saving. While in the same general family of meaning, the latter carries a distinct sense of healing from sickness and restoring to health, the opposite of which is perishing.

I love the part where she looks at many, many instances of the God of Israel proclaimed to be Redeemer in Second Isaiah. Yes! Anyone who reads Isaiah will pick up on this theme of comfort.

There is a crucial point to be gleaned for the theology of accompaniment we are working to establish as an alternative to the satisfaction theory. Let me state it as plainly as possible. More than five hundred years before Jesus’ death on the cross, Second Isaiah proclaimed that the God who created heaven and earth was redeeming and saving Israel and forgiving their sin out of the infinite depths of divine compassion. This God is forever faithful and does not need anyone to die in order to be merciful. It is strange to contemplate how Christian preaching in the tradition of the satisfaction theory seems to assume that some seismic shift suddenly changed the divine character, so that Jesus’ death was necessary to win favor for sinners. One hears that he came to die, and without the cross we would not be saved, as if at some point the flow of divine mercy were shut down, needing Jesus’ death to start it up again. As we will discover, however, rather than making a necessary gift to placate divine honor, Jesus’ brutal death enacts the solidarity of the gracious and merciful God with all who die and especially with victims of injustice, opening hope for resurrection amid the horror. If ever a healing balm could reach the depth of Christian soul wounded by the satisfaction theory, a close reading of Second Isaiah might begin the treatment.

She also looks at many Psalms, full of forgiveness.

At the cost of repeating myself, I want to note that in all these psalms there is no need for anyone to die. When a person turns to God from a wrongful path, divine forgiveness of sin is a gift generously given, pressed down and overflowing, because of the goodness of the God who loves them: “as far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us” (Ps 103:12). No satisfaction is needed.

And Jesus didn’t preach a different God!

The early church’s expanding Christological interpretations of Jesus led the community to view the God of Israel in light of its own relationship to Christ, which in turn led to new insights and formulations about God in Trinitarian terms. Nevertheless, the First Testament’s view of the God who creates and saves shaped the early church’s interpretation of Jesus in an intrinsic and irreplaceable way. The God whom Jesus revealed and even embodied as self-expressing Word is none other than the God of Israel. “In times past God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. . .” (Heb 1:1). It is the same God who speaks, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.

Since Elizabeth Johnson is not ignoring Jesus’ life, ministry, and resurrection, there’s more about those and how they connect with creation.

It is enormously helpful to see the way early Christians connected resurrection with creation. The logic of the connection allows this impossible hope to make more sense. Paul forges this link in a quick line: God “gives life to the dead and brings into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). There it is. Just like that, you can see that if the living God can create the world to begin with, then God can create anew in death. Why ever not? No future existed before the world began; no future exists for a dead person. But divine creative action that occurs “in the beginning” continues to act through time and up to the end, which becomes a new beginning. It is the same loving, creative, divine action.

The author calls her view a “theology of accompaniment.” I love that! She’s talking much about accompaniment with all creation – but it also applies as God with us, each individual.

What our trek through the scriptures gives us instead, to use alternative language, is a theology of accompaniment. It fosters the idea of salvation as the divine gift of “I am with you,” even in the throes of suffering and death. Redemption comes to mean the presence of God walking with the world through its traumas and travail, even unto death. This theology entails a double solidarity, of the actual Jesus who lived with all who live, suffer and die, and of the resurrecting God of life with the ministering and crucified Jesus.

Expanding further on that idea:

The double solidarity of Jesus with those who suffer and of God with Jesus structures a theology of accompaniment so that it brings the presence of God who saves to the fore. Keep in mind that we are talking here about the same God who creates and delights in the world; the same God who sides with slaves against the might of Pharaoh, with exiles against their imperial captors, and now with a crucified prophet against the Roman empire; “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Ex 34:6-7). We are talking about the same gracious God, “your Savior and your Redeemer” (Isa 49:26), whom Jesus called father, whose compassion flashed out from the picturesque parables Jesus made up, and was tasted in the challenge and joy of his multiple interactions. Toward the end of the New Testament we read the bold statement that “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8). This is a pithy summary of all that has gone down in the history of revelation up to that point. God loves the world and, like any good lover, wants the beloved to flourish.

In talking more about this theology of accompaniment Elizabeth Johnson, like other authors I’ve read, points out that the New Testament writers used an abundance of metaphors.

Virtually every commentator points out that the New Testament has no logically articulated theory of salvation. No one composed a systematic explanation of how the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, let alone the cross taken by itself, redeemed the world. There is no single doctrine. There is no Anselm in the first century. There are no theories, syllogisms, or tightly reasoned arguments. New Testament texts were not written in objectively academic language.

While the disciples did not theorize, what they did do was find metaphors in holy scripture as well as everyday life that illuminated their religious experience of the good news and helped them communicate it to others. Their writing is like poetry, a brief phrase here, a more extended reflection there, a flash of discovery here, a whisper of insight there. All the vivid metaphors hold that the saving God had acted through what happened to Jesus, but none try to rationalize precisely how this works. When pushed to their logical limits, the illuminating metaphors inevitably break down.

This is a good word of caution when we try to make one metaphor the final word on what Jesus’ death was all about.

The author does go on to look at many of the metaphors used. And she draws beauty and insights out of those metaphors and shows us how they apply to all creation, not humans alone. I love this joyous summary after looking at many types of metaphors:

Talk about creativity! The disciples drew ideas from the scriptures, especially Genesis, Exodus, the psalms, and the prophets. They made analogies from temple worship and the annual cycle of Jewish feasts. And they crafted new metaphors from everyday spheres of life.

Many of these metaphors speak dynamically of an experience of a changed relationship to God thanks to Jesus Christ. They describe the grace of going from sick to healthy, from enemy to friend, from estranged to reconciled, from bound to free, from indicted to not guilty, from slave to beloved child, from lost to found, from poor to rich, from oppressed to liberated, from alien to citizen, from old creation to new creation, from death to life. The metaphor of blood from animal sacrifice bespoke purification, forgiveness, rededication. Isaiah’s servant was reconfigured to the cross with the intuition that one person’s suffering can heal others of their infirmities.

The penultimate section of the book develops the theology of accompaniment by looking at the promises made to all creation, celebrating God as the God of all flesh. She calls it “deep incarnation.”

So if we take flesh at its most inclusive meaning, the flesh assumed in Jesus Christ connects the living God with all human beings; this has been said for centuries. But it also connects the creating God who saves with all biological life and the whole matrix of the material universe down to its very roots; this is the new vision.

In the final section, she talks about how this theology can change our view of the world and its creatures.

To sum up, the living God, gracious and merciful, always was, is, and will be accompanying the world with saving grace, including humans in their sinfulness, and humans and all creatures in their unique beauty, evolutionary struggle, and inevitable dying. The cross does not change this truth, or occasion a shift in God’s attitude from betrayed honor to willingness to forgive. It does make the compassionate love of God’s heart blazingly clear in an historical event. “The death of Christ becomes an icon of God’s redemptive co-suffering with all sentient life as well as the victims of social competition,” to recall Gregersen’s insight. In Jesus Christ crucified we are gifted with an historical sacrament of encounter with the mercy of God, which impels us toward conversion to the suffering earth, sustained by hope for the resurrection of the flesh of all of us.

As always when I quote so much from a book, I’m running the risk of giving you the impression I’ve covered everything she has to say and am presenting her complete arguments. This is only a taste – but enough of a taste to remind me what I read. In fact, I wrote such a long summary in hopes of retaining more of her points in my own mind.

But as always, I hope that those who find these selections inspiring or challenging or thought-provoking will read the book themselves. Highly recommended.

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Review of Becoming Mrs. Lewis, by Patti Callahan

Saturday, March 16th, 2019

Becoming Mrs. Lewis

by Patti Callahan

Thomas Nelson (HarperCollins), 2018. 406 pages.
Review written March 16, 2019, from a library book.
Starred Review

It was good to again have a novel keeping me up late at night reading (we’re talking 3 am), and since it was a novel for grown-ups instead of all the children’s books I read last year for the Newbery – it kept me up late more than one night. This wasn’t necessarily a good thing – except that it was nice to be pulled into the world of the novel that thoroughly.

This book tells the same story as one of my favorite movies, Shadowlands with Anthony Hopkins, but of course the book went into much more detail. It’s the story of Joy Davidman and how she fell in love with C. S. Lewis and married him. But they didn’t have long together, because she got cancer.

I don’t feel like I’m giving away too much, even though the marriage happens at the end of the book – because anyone who knows that C. S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed about his much loved wife will know this is coming. And, oh yes, the book is called Becoming Mrs. Lewis. So it’s not a surprise that they fall in love. The story is in the exquisite way they fall in love.

The book opens with Joy Gresham’s salvation experience. Although she’d been an atheist, in a moment when she was feeling desperate, stranded at home after a call from her drunken husband, thinking he was either committing suicide or with another woman – she suddenly felt the presence of God.

God didn’t fix anything in that moment, but that wasn’t the point of it all. Still I didn’t know where Bill was, and still I was scared for his life, but Someone, my Creator it seemed, was there with me in all of it. This Someone was as real as my sons in their beds, as the storm battering the window frames, as my knees on the hardwood floors.

After she became a Christian, she had many questions about her faith, and then read an article about C. S. Lewis which led her to read and reread all of his books (the ones written by 1950). She talked to the professor who’d written the article, and he urged her to write a letter to C. S. Lewis, thinking he could answer some of her questions about her relatively new faith.

And so began their long and avid correspondence.

The book includes excerpts from their letters, though I was disappointed to learn at the back that we don’t have existing copies of the actual letters. Patti Callahan used his other writings and talks to simulate their correspondence. But she did have a set of poems of longing that Joy had written during that time and dedicated to Jack. Some lines from the poems are at the head of each chapter.

In so many ways, this is a novel of longing. Because Joy fell in love with Jack long before he fell in love with her – but their friendship blossomed from the start. First, it was in their letters. They each found a correspondent who understood and to whom they could really open up.

Joy and her husband were both writers and were having trouble getting work finished. Joy had some health troubles and decided to go to England. She could stay with a friend who was living in London, research a book she had begun on King Charles II, and even get her teeth fixed and get medical care she’d been putting off because medical care in England was almost free even to tourists, and she couldn’t afford it in America. Her cousin Renee and her two daughters had been staying with them since her divorce, so Renee could hold down the fort while Joy tried to get back on track in England. And she could finally meet Jack, to whom she’d been writing for three years.

And in England her friendship with Jack deepened. And her husband ended up having an affair with Renee.

But it’s all told in much more exquisite detail than that. Joy already had a firm and deep friendship with Jack on that first trip to England. She went back to her home in America to get her sons and straighten things out – and file for divorce.

But divorce wasn’t easy to get in the 1950s. She was still technically married when she moved back to England with her boys. After the divorce did go through, the authorities had extended her visa too often, and she was going to have to move back to America. A civil marriage in name only to Jack allowed her to stay. In the Shadowlands movie, this was her idea. In this book, it’s Jack’s idea, because he doesn’t want her to leave. She was typing his manuscripts for him and essentially collaborating with him on the book Till We Have Faces.

But even after her divorce had gone through, the Anglican church still wouldn’t permit their marriage – and Jack scrupulously wouldn’t allow himself to fall in love with her. He’d written The Four Loves by then, and was keeping things as philea brotherly love. Even though she was obviously precious to him.

There’s a wonderful chapter where Joy comes to peace with this. She has long loved him, and he’s not loving her back. They’ve written Till We Have Faces together.

It was as clear as if someone had walked into the room and ripped the veil off my soul, forcing me to stare into its darker depths. Much of what I’d done – mistakes, poems, manipulations, success and books and sex – had been done merely to get love. To get it. To answer my question: do you love me? Even as I gave love, was I trying just to gain it? Had it really taken the fictional Orual to show me the truth?

In my bedroom, I fell to my knees on the hard floor and rested my head on the edge of the mattress, pressing my face into the softness.

The face I already possessed before I was born was who I was in God all along, before anything went right or went wrong, before I did anything right or wrong, that was the face of my true self. My “bareface.”

From that moment on, the love affair I would develop would be with my soul. He was already part of me; that much was clear. And now this would be where I would go for love – to the God in me. No more begging or pursuing or needing. It was my false self that was connected to the painful and demanding heart grasping at the world, leading me to despair. Same as Orual. Same as Psyche. Same as all of humanity.

Possibly it was only a myth, Jack’s myth, that could have obliterated the false belief that I must pursue love in the outside world – in success, in acclaim, in performance, in a man.

The Truth: I was beloved of God.

Finally I could stop trying to force someone or something else to fill that role.

The pain of shattered illusion swept through me like glass blown through a room after a bomb.

All had been turned around. No longer was the question Why doesn’t Jack love me the way I want him to? But now Why must I demand that he love me the way I want him to?

I was already loved. That was the answer to any question I held out to the world.

This was a beautiful time in my life to read this. I’m divorced and have an empty nest. After finishing the Newbery reading, I decided I no longer have an excuse not to go back online – but for various reasons I’m not setting my heart on quickly finding a good match there.

So to read about the peace she got, loving this good man who didn’t think it was right to love her back – that peace passed on to me. Yes. I, too, am loved. I, too, am doing my work, living my life, caring about my friends – all under God’s hand.

And when did C. S. Lewis finally come around? When did he finally marry her before God? After she was diagnosed with cancer and given only a few months to live.

But this book is not a tragedy. In fact, it’s one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve read in a long time.

And though I’ve told a lot of what happens, because it’s really not a secret (And watch the movie Shadowlands if you haven’t already!) – the beauty of this book is in how it all happens, the beautiful details along the way. You’ve got wise gems from C. S. Lewis as they discuss their faith – and lots of wisdom from Joy Davidman as well.

It’s an exquisite and slowly unfolding love story between two remarkable people, but it’s also full of wisdom about life and about God’s working in the world and observations about what it was like for a strong woman to make her way in the world in the 1950s. I’m afraid the worst effect of the book was that it made me want to pack up and just move to England. (Finding an Englishman to marry me might be a problem, though.)

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Review of Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, by J. D. Myers

Tuesday, March 5th, 2019

Nothing But the Blood of Jesus

How the Sacrifice of Jesus Saves the World from Sin

by J. D. Myers

Redeeming Press, 2017. 274 pages.
Review written from my own copy, purchased via Amazon.com.
Starred Review

For awhile now, I’ve been reading books on theology, and lately on the theology of the cross. I’m not satisfied with the view I was taught in childhood, essentially that Jesus had to save us from God. This book has a foreword by Brad Jersak, whose book, A More Christlike God, I loved on this topic, so I decided to give this one a try.

Nothing But the Blood of Jesus presents a more elaborate theological system. And it makes fascinating reading. I’m not sure whether or not I agree with every detail. I don’t want to make any theory the be-all and end-all of what I believe about God, but I think this theory has a lot of insights to offer.

The author explains the organization at the beginning of the book. There are five sections covering five key concepts. The concepts are interrelated, though, so he says you may not have a complete grasp of the first concept until you’ve read about the others. The concepts he covers are sin, law, sacrifice, scapegoat, and blood. After a chapter explaining each concept, he’s got a chapter covering the key Scripture passages that talk about that concept.

And there’s really good stuff here! It challenges what I’ve been taught. Like I said, I’m not sure if I agree with every detail. But taken as a metaphor, it does shed lots of light on certain matters of faith.

Let me see if I can summarize the overall idea: The primary sin of mankind is scapegoating and religious violence. We use religion to scapegoat and blame others for our own failings and bring peace. However, when Jesus came and lived a sinless life, we scapegoated him, too – showing that even an innocent person will get scapegoated. Jesus showed a better way, a way of love and forgiveness. He showed us that God’s way of love and forgiveness surpasses the human tendency to scapegoat and blame.

Hmm. I’m not sure I did the greatest job with that summary. Let me include some quotes that I especially like.

This is from the section on Sin:

First, God is not angry at us for our sin. While sin is a serious thing, God is not concerned about sin simply because it is sin. That is, God doesn’t tell us to stay away from sin because sin offends, hurts, or angers Him. Purely from God’s perspective, sin just isn’t that big of a deal. The reason God is concerned about sin and wants all humans to stop sinning, is not because God Himself is offended or angered by sin, but because we humans are hurt and damaged by it. Sin is an issue with God, not because it hurts Him, but because it hurts us. God loves us so much, He tells us not to sin because He doesn’t want to see us get hurt by it. When God says “Don’t” what He is really saying is “Don’t hurt yourself.”

This leads to the second truth about sin to keep in mind: God does not punish us for our sin. Yes, we may get punished for sin, but this punishment is not from God. Sin carries its own punishment. In fact, the punishment that comes from sin is the pain of sin that God wants to rescue and deliver us from. God doesn’t punish us for sin; He works to rescue us from the punishment of sin. God loves us, and doesn’t want us to experience the devastating and destructive consequences of sin, and so He warns us against sin.

Here’s a thought-provoking section in the chapter looking at Scriptures about sin. This bit is looking at John 16:8 – “And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment.”

I believe the Holy Spirit is doing an excellent job in this task. While it is true that the world still engages in a lot of rivalry, scapegoating, and violence, the world is also waking up to the fact that such practices are wrong. In ancient civilizations, it used to be that nobody questioned scapegoating violence. It “worked” to create peace in a society, and as a result of its effectiveness, it was assumed to be fully in line with the will of the gods. But since Jesus revealed the truth about scapegoating violence to us, and since the Holy Spirit has been convicting the world of this sin, it is no longer as effective as it once was and does not create any lasting or significant peace. The world is starting to recognize that true peace only comes through forgiveness….

Strangely, while the church should be leading the world in such matters, it sometimes seems the world leads the church. Quite often, when the world is exposing scapegoat victims as innocent and crying out for forgiveness and reconciliation, the church retreats into a position of judgment, accusation, blame, and calls for death. But when we recognize that the Spirit also convicts the world of sin, we do not need to be alarmed when the world sees something wrong before we do. Instead, we can be thrilled when we see the world responding to the movement of the Spirit in their midst, and we can join other people in their efforts to end rivalry, violence, and scapegoating. We can, like Paul in the Areopagus, stand up and say, “The One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).

I was impressed with the author’s discussion of the Law. He pointed out that God offered the people of Israel a covenant relationship with Him first, based on love. But they didn’t want to deal with God directly. Here’s a section from the chapter on Law:

Yet even though “Love God and love others” is a good summary of the law, this statement is still a law, and Christians are not called to live according to the law. Instead, we are invited to live within a relationship based on love. While God does want us to love Him and love others, we cannot do this until we know that we are loved unconditionally. And once we know we are loved by God, love for Him and for others flows naturally from Him through us as we live within that love. This only makes sense, for no relationship can be built on law. True relationships are always and only built on love.

Imagine if you tried to build your marriage on a checklist of responsibilities. How long would such a marriage last? Let us even assume that the “To do” list was a very good list. It included things like saying “I love you” seven times a day, hugging your spouse three times a day, and having sex once per week. On this list, men were instructed to wash the dishes for their wives on Tuesday nights, and wives were instructed to give their husbands a backrub on Fridays. Imagine that this list had 613 such commandments and you were able to do them all. Would you have a “good” marriage relationship? Well, such a marriage might be better than other marriages, but no one would be able to call it a marriage “relationship.” It would be a marriage based on a checklist; not a marriage based on love.

This is exactly how to view the law, and in fact, is exactly how the law is presented in Scripture. The law serves as a substitute when a loving relationship is not possible, but no one should ever confuse law keeping with an actual loving relationship. Though the law may teach people the sorts of things one might see in a loving relationship, even a comprehensive list of 613 items can never substitute for an actual relationship built on love. Just as laws are needed where there is no relationship, laws are not needed where a relationship of love exists. If people reject love, the only alternative is law.

Another example from marriage shows how obeying the law can actually make us behave worse:

Yet when laws are created as a way to guide people into love, some begin to think that what is obedience to the law is more important than learning to love. It’s definitely easier. Imagine a (mostly) fictional scenario where my wife explains to me that she is not feeling loved, and when I ask her to provide examples of what I can do to show love she gives me a list of three suggestions. I can buy her flowers every week, ask her about her day at dinner, and kiss her every night before bed. But if I do those things perfectly every day for the rest of my life, does this then mean that I truly love her? Not necessarily; I can do all those things and still not show love. Worse yet, I can check these items off my list, but then turn around and do unloving things such as not actually listening to her when she tells me about her day, or mechanically kissing her goodnight. In such a situation, she will not feel more loved, but less. My strict obedience to the law actually leads me to treat my wife worse than ever before.

This is exactly how it can work with all laws. Laws are initially created to help people learn to show love toward God, themselves, or others, but when obedience to these laws becomes an end in and of itself, laws can actually lead to worse behavior than ever before. This is especially true when people begin looking for loopholes in the laws which allow them to live selfishly and dangerously while still obeying the letter of the law. In the example above, although I asked my wife about her day, I didn’t actually listen to what she said, which only makes her feel worse. It would have been better if I hadn’t even asked.

Usually, as these sorts of loopholes are discovered, the human tendency is to close them with even more laws. If my wife complained (rightfully so) that although I asked about her day I wasn’t really listening, the natural human reaction would be to create an additional law to actually listen to what she said. So now we have a fourth law. But the only way to prove that I was actually listening is to summarize or paraphrase back to her what she says. This creates a fifth law. But even still, I could do this without actually caring or showing any interest. So in an attempt to show interest, a sixth law could be created in which I must ask at least three questions in response to what she was saying. Do you see what is happening here? Due to a lack of love on my part, the laws are starting to multiply. But no matter how many laws we add, they will never be able to create genuine love. Yet in an attempt to produce love where there is none, more and more laws become necessary. This is exactly what happens to all laws. When there is no love, 10 laws become 600 laws which become 6000 laws which become 60,000 pages of laws. And with every new law, the reality of genuine love becomes less and less likely.

He talks about Jesus in that light:

When Jesus healed on the Sabbath, hung out with prostitutes and sinners, or let Himself get touched by lepers, He was breaking the religious interpretation of the law while He simultaneously fulfilled the spirit in which it was intended. The law was intended to lead to love and Jesus, knowing this, showed love to everyone with whom He interacted, even if His actions went against the letter of the law as understood and taught by the religious leaders of His day. We can follow the example of Jesus in this regard when it comes to the question of the Mosaic Law.

For those who are still a bit skeptical, there are several examples from the Mosaic Law which reveal loving actions in their day, but which would nevertheless be hateful and hurtful actions in ours. Several of the laws about women and slaves, for example, were huge movements toward love in the days when the law was given and both women and slaves were treated like property. In many ways, the laws of Moses gave value and dignity to women and slaves that was unprecedented among other people and cultures of that time.

However, if we were to treat women today as the Mosaic Law stipulates they are to be treated, such behavior toward women today would be misogynistic, sexist, cruel, and mean. The law of love as exemplified in Jesus Christ has brought about better treatment of women today than anything the Mosaic Law could accomplish through law keeping.

There’s lots more to talk about in that section. But then in the part about Sacrifice, this author really shook up some of my ideas.

In the first place, he makes a strong case that sacrifices were never for God at all – they were mankind’s idea, and they are purely for humans. He makes a strong case that the Bible talks a lot about sacrifice to show us that they don’t work.

Yes, God sent His Son to die as a sacrifice, but this was not because God Himself wanted or needed the sacrifice, but because God wanted to reveal and expose to humanity once and for all the violent and sinful tendencies that reside in our own hearts. God did not want or need the death of His own Son in order to satiate His wrath toward sin and extend forgiveness to us. No, God has always loved and always forgiven all humans for all their sin, simply because that’s the kind of God He is. He doesn’t need or demand payment for sin. (In fact, if He did demand payment, then He wouldn’t be forgiving; He would be getting “paid off.”)

From the beginning of human history, we humans have engaged in rivalry, accusation, and violence, and we often do such things in God’s name. Everything in Scripture is focused on revealing this one truth to us. But it did so imperfectly, because we humans could always justify our violent behavior toward others as “carrying out God’s will against unrighteous people.” In the name of justice we justify our violent behavior toward others.

But there was no way to justify our treatment of Jesus. He did no wrong. He never sinned. There was no unrighteousness in Him deserving of death. Yet we killed Him anyway, and we did so in God’s name. We sent Jesus to the cross and we claimed that it was God’s will. But it wasn’t. It never was. Jesus allowed Himself to be sacrificed in order to reveal to us that all sacrificial violence comes from the heart of man rather than the heart of God. Jesus died to reveal to us once and for all that God does not want sacrifices. Jesus revealed that it is we who want to kill others and we who justify our violence against men and animals by blaming this violence upon God. Once we see this truth, we can see how Jesus is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices.

There’s fascinating stuff in the chapter of Scriptural passages about sacrifice. I had no idea that the Hebrew word for “tunic” in Genesis 3:21, where God makes clothes for Adam and Eve, usually refers to a linen tunic, not leather. And the word for “skin” doesn’t have to mean the skin of an animal, but can just refer to clothes used for covering. So that idea that God killed an animal to make them clothes isn’t really found in the text.

And even Cain’s offering in Genesis 4:4 may not have been a sacrifice! This author points out that it says Abel offered an animal to God, but it never says he killed the animal. In fact, at that time, humans were vegetarians, so why would Cain have even thought of killing the animal?

There’s a lot more, and he looks at the sacrificial system overall. He makes the case that this was never God’s plan, but it was a step in the right direction.

Though much of the surrounding culture practiced human sacrifice, God forbade such practices, and limited the Hebrew people to animal sacrifice only. It was not perfect, but it was a move in the right direction. We must be careful not to reverse this redemptive move by saying that through the cross of Jesus, God wanted human sacrifice after all. Such a teaching is a move backward, not forward, in the biblical revelation about sacrifice.

Then in the prophets, we find God directly saying he doesn’t want sacrifices. (See Jeremiah 7:22-23, Amos 5:21-24, Micah 6:6-8, and other passages discussed in this book.)

The basic message of the prophets regarding sacrifice is that God owns the cattle on a thousand hills. He doesn’t need us to give Him more. Besides, He prefers them alive. God is not a God of blood and death, but a God of love and life. So do you want to worship God? Do so with love and justice, grace and mercy, generosity and peace. This is what the prophets proclaim. Jesus followed this prophetic tradition by teaching similar things during His life and ministry.

In covering the gospels, he says, “Jesus is the sacrifice to end all sacrifices, not because God is finally appeased, but because the heart of man and the heart of God are both finally revealed for what they are. We condemn and kill while God loves and forgives.”

He even mentions Romans 12:1 and points out that we are asked to be a living sacrifice to God, not a dead one.

A lot of the author’s ideas come together in Part Four, about the Scapegoat. He shows that mankind has always used scapegoats. When there’s rivalry and violence, blaming a scapegoat can bring groups together.

This does not mean that scapegoats are innocent. while the scapegoat may not be guilty of everything for which they are charged, the scapegoats are also usually guilty of some of the things. But this just adds to our certainty about the scapegoat. The best scapegoats are guilty scapegoats. There are almost always a few sins for which the scapegoat truly is guilty. People point to these obvious faults as clear evidence that the scapegoat must also be guilty of all the other faults which are not so clear. The glaring character flaws convince and persuade us that “the stories must be true.” Once these obvious sins and failures are pointed out to the mob, it becomes easy to then blame the scapegoat for the numerous sins and failures for which they are innocent. The few clear failures are extrapolated out into numerous faults until the scapegoat becomes a sinner of monstrous proportions and people do not realize they are turning a person into a scapegoat. The scapegoat itself becomes invisible, and we think we are just speaking the truth, calling out evil where it is found, and crying for the expulsion of the monster from our midst.

But Jesus became the Ultimate Scapegoat.

By becoming a scapegoat victim, Jesus revealed that all the accusations thrown at the scapegoat do not actually indicate crimes of the scapegoat themselves, but instead reveal the crimes of those doing the scapegoating. Scapegoats are a mirror into our own lives, culture, and society. We do not like what we see in our hearts, or in our society and culture, and since we find it so difficult to own up to such things, we lay the blame for them on someone else…. We kill the scapegoat to drive out the sin that is in our own hearts, but the sin that is in our hearts is only strengthened and amplified through the blaming and killing of the scapegoat. This is the first truth Jesus reveals about scapegoating.

The second truth is that we use the law of God to do the exact opposite of the reasons for which the law was provided. Due to a lack of love, the law was given as a tutor, to show us what love looked like and how love acted, until the time when we could love God and love others without the law. But instead, we used the law to further our own sin. We used the law to justify our sinful behaviors of dehumanizing, condemning, and killing others. We used the law to make scapegoats. This truth was perfectly revealed through the life, ministry, and crucifixion of Jesus when the law was quoted and cited as evidence against Him.

The author says that besides all the people we make into scapegoats, we also scapegoat God. Here’s part of his explanation of that, taken from his analysis of Revelation 5:5-6:

The fact that the Lamb is slain since the foundation of the world reveals that this is the way God has always been. He has always been an innocent Lamb who allows Himself to get slain for the sake of others. He is the premier scapegoat of humanity, but as a perfectly innocent scapegoat, it is best to describe Him as a Lamb. As the scapegoated God, Jesus identifies with all scapegoated, sacrificial victims since the foundation of the world. When we kill others in God’s name, Jesus is right there, with the sacrificial victim, being killed alongside the one we condemn, accuse, cast out, expel, dehumanize, and kill, all in the name of God. Through this revelation, we once again see that we can no longer scapegoat others in God’s name, for God is not a God who blames, accuses, and condemns, but is a God who loves, forgives, and accepts. And He calls us to do the same.

The final section of this book is about Blood. First, he points out that mentioning blood in the Bible is mentioning violence.

This is a critical point to grasp, for it shows that the crucifixion of Jesus on the cross was the greatest sin humanity has ever committed. The crucifixion of Jesus on the cross was not for the purpose of appeasing the wrath of God, for how can another violent death bring pleasure to a God who is opposed to all violent deaths? No, the bloody, violent death of Jesus on the cross was the greatest human sin in a long line of human sins that stretches back to the very beginning of human history. And the death of Jesus on the cross did not appease the wrath of an angry God (for He was never angry to begin with), but rather revealed the sin and violence that is in the heart of all mankind. The violent and bloody death of Jesus on the cross reveals where violence comes from and calls us to forsake such violent ways and follow Jesus instead into love and forgiveness.

But notice what this means. It means that the violent death of Jesus was necessary. There was no other way to reveal the truth about sin and bloodshed. The truth about sin and violence which Jesus unveiled on the cross could not have been revealed in a non-violent way. We humans are blind to our own sin and our complicity in violence, and we never would have believed that it was possible for us to violently shed the blood of an innocent victim unless such sin was clearly revealed to us. But this is what Jesus did reveal through His violent and bloody death on the cross.

And now we’re building toward a summary of all these concepts.

The ultimate truth that Jesus revealed by becoming a scapegoat and then offering forgiveness is that forgiveness is the best, most successful, and most divine way of creating peace in times of conflict. Since most conflict is generated through an ever-increasing cycle of violence and retaliation, no party in a conflict is ever truly without fault. Except Jesus. He alone, among all human scapegoats in the history of the world, could have justifiably retaliated against humanity for the crimes committed against Him. Yet instead of retaliatory vengeance, when Jesus was on the cross, He turned to God and prayed, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” Accepting forgiveness for what we have done and extending forgiveness to others is God’s only divinely-sanctioned mechanism for creating peace and restoring relationships in times of conflict. The way of Jesus, which is the way of God, is the way of peace through forgiveness.

In the section on Scriptures about blood, the author taught me that there are two Greek words for forgiveness used in the New Testament. Here he’s discussing the Last Supper and Matthew 26:28 – “For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.”

One of the central benefits of the new covenant is the remission of sins. But what does this mean? People read this statement and understand Jesus to be saying that the new covenant provides forgiveness for sins. Indeed, various Bible translations have the word “forgiveness” here instead of “remission,” which only serves to support this misunderstanding.

The error can be cleared up by recognizing that there are two kinds of forgiveness in the Bible. There is conditional forgiveness (Gk. aphesis), and unconditional forgiveness (Gk. charizomai). Aphesis forgiveness is conceptually closer to deliverance, or as rescue from the damaging consequences of sin. This aphesis forgiveness is better understood as release, liberation, or remission, and refers to gaining freedom from the addicting and devastating power of sin in our lives. Charizomai forgiveness, on the other hand, is based upon grace (charis), and refers to God’s free and gracious pardon of all sin. There are no conditions whatsoever for this second type of forgiveness, and God freely extends it to all people throughout all time for all their sin.

The type of forgiveness Jesus speaks of in Matthew 26:28 is the conditional type of forgiveness; aphesis forgiveness. When this is understood, we see that Jesus is not teaching His disciples that as a result of His death on the cross, God will finally be able to forgive humans for their sin because the debt has been paid. No, God has always forgiven all people of all their sin throughout all time. But just because we are freely forgiven by God, this does not mean that we have broken free from the power of sin in our lives. This is where aphesis forgiveness comes in. Though we all have free charizomai forgiveness from God, in order to actually experience freedom from sin in our lives, we must fulfill the conditions of aphesis forgiveness.

One of these conditions is to follow Jesus into the new covenant. In Matthew 26:28, Jesus is saying that now, because of the new covenant which is enacted or inaugurated through His blood (symbolized by the cup of wine), God was now making available a new way of dealing with the addictive and destructive power of sin in human lives. God was showing a new way forward. Through the new covenant in Jesus Christ, God revealed that violence and bloodshed never cures violence and bloodshed. Instead, what is needed is unconditional love and forgiveness, which are enabled and empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit. All of these were gifts of the new covenant which was enacted through the blood of Jesus represented by the cup of wine.

[I actually went to my Strong’s concordance and looked at which Greek words are used for forgiveness where. This author is right. Aphesis is used most often, but especially when paired with something we need to do, such as repent – for the forgiveness of sins. So we need to repent to experience freedom. But when it talks about what God has done – then charizomai is used. We are to forgive as the Lord forgave us — charizomai, freely and fully.]

Please don’t think that because I’ve gone on and on at such tremendous length and provided so many quotations that you have read all that this book has to offer. I’ve said so much because I’m trying to grasp it all more fully. But there are many fascinating points I have left out, and his overall argument is far more persuasive if you read the whole book.

Here’s a final summary paragraph:

Nothing else reveals our sin to us like the violent death of Jesus on the cross. All other sacrificial and scapegoat victims we could justify. They deserved it. They truly were guilty. We were just treating them the way they treated us. But not so with Jesus. He was “sinless” and knew no sin, but we killed Him in God’s name anyway, thereby proving that this is also what we do to others when we feel justified and righteous in killing them. Only the innocent blood of the Lamb of God could reveal this to us and also call us to put an end to it through forgiveness. For of all victims throughout history, only Jesus would have been justified in retaliation and vengeance against those who wrongfully accused and killed Him. But instead He forgave us. This shows that we too can forgive others. We can forgive as we have been forgiven. We can love as we have been loved. The way out of sin is to see how Jesus dealt with our sin against Him. Nothing and nobody else could have so clearly revealed this to us.

So, wow – this book provides a big-picture way of looking at the cross – and even all of human history – that does not involve Jesus saving us from God and doesn’t involve God demanding violence.

As you can tell, this book got me thinking and mulling over all that the author says. This is a very long review, but I’m hoping it gives you enough of a taste that you’ll be hungry for more.

RedeemingGod.com

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What did you think of this book?

Review of Leatherbound Terrorism, by Chris Kratzer

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

Leatherbound Terrorism

Crucified by Conservative Evangelicalism, Resurrected by Jesus

by Chris Kratzer

Grace Publishing, 2018. 197 pages.
Starred Review

I was leery of reading this book. The author comes across on Facebook as unduly angry. (I think he would say that he is properly angry.) I’m a universalist who attends an evangelical church, and I would like to think they are not so bad as the “conservative Evangelical churches” he rails against. I do love that they did not make me sign a statement of faith when I joined the church, but only asked me if I had accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. (I have.) They knew I’m a universalist and let me join anyway. At times, the pastor has gone out of his way to make it clear that there is no one “Christian” political view. We are a community of people who love Jesus and are trying to follow Him together – and a wide variety of political views, and, yes, even theological views are included within our body.

I don’t agree with every point of doctrine in Chris Kratzer’s book, either. But to be honest, my views seem to agree at many more points with his than they do with standard evangelical teaching, even at my own church. So I appreciated how his teaching applies those beliefs to life – and points out where evangelical theology can trap you into not living a grace-filled life.

All that is to say, I don’t believe in every point he teaches – but I found many wonderful things in this book. And I wrote a long review, because I wanted to be reminded of all that he said. (I finished reading the book a couple weeks ago.)

And things to watch out for. I’m afraid that my church, which I’ve always loved for not claiming to have the final answer on every matter of faith and conduct, for acknowledging that Christians disagree on political issues and are still Christian – is contemplating adding a “Christian Living Statement” to the bylaws that would claim some things are sinful that I strongly do not believe the Bible teaches are sinful. I think that policy would exclude and condemn people the Lord does not condemn. And it would bring us closer to the pitfalls Chris Kratzer points out in this book.

But back to the book. What the author is condemning in conservative evangelicalism is the spirit of condemnation as opposed to Grace.

That sounds contradictory – but it lines up with the one thing Jesus called people out for – religious leaders tying up heavy loads and placing them on people’s shoulders. Religious leaders saying they knew the only way to God and pointing out other people’s sins.

Jesus partied with tax collectors and sinners. Sure, he told the woman caught in adultery to go and leave her life of sin, but he wasn’t the one who dragged her before a group of judges. Mary Magdalene had seven demons cast out of her. She was an unsavory character – whom Jesus loved.

Wait, I was going to get to talking about the book!

The author tells the story of his life, including a difficult childhood in and out of the hospital with asthma, being sexually abused, and having an impossible-to-please father. As an adult, he became a conservative evangelical pastor.

Just color within the lines, give the proper responses, think and believe the right things, fight the good fight of faith, and I, too, could become “successful” and satisfactory for Jesus. Perhaps then, both my father on earth and the Father above could finally love me – perhaps, then, even I could finally love me. The ultimate trifecta of acceptance and approval was just an Evangelical “to do” list away, all leading to a position seated high above the world upon which to feel good about myself through a subtle looking-down upon others. It was all so righteous and perfect – so it seemed.

I have to say that even in a “good” evangelical church, those are exactly the temptations – “to do” list Christianity, thinking you have to do certain things or at least believe certain things to keep God from being mad at you. And then a subtle self-righteousness as much as you manage to do/believe those things.

People were now projects, Jesus was the springboard to my success, church was a platform upon which my ego could overcome my insecurities, and faith was an appearance that I hoped would convince me that I was something valuable when, deep down, I ultimately believed I was not.

This is the poison I thought was the cure.

He noticed something was wrong when a lesbian woman came to him for help.

She had been brutally condemned by nearly every person and spiritual entity in her life, and was grasping at my counsel for one last ray of hope. Yet, with every conservative Evangelical prescription and pre-packaged talking point that vomited off my lips, it all fell flat and reeked of death, leaving this beautiful person all the closer to giving up as the fading light behind her eyes was now all but snuffed out. What was “biblical” in Evangelical eyes, brought death to hers.

In a way like never before, the alarms went off inside of me, “Something is seriously wrong, this is not what I signed up for.” This whole, “hate-the-sin, love-the-sinner” crap was showing itself to be nothing like Jesus. Broken people didn’t cringe at His presence and leave defeated; instead, they clung to His every being and walked away with affirmation, freedom, and unstoppable courage.

The cat was out of the bag, and I could no longer deny it – the more conservative an Evangelical I became, the less I portrayed Jesus….

All that time, I thought I was helping people when, in fact, I was imprisoning them – declaring a mixed Evangelical gospel of conditional love that is, in fact, no Gospel at all (Galatians 1:6-7). All, while sentencing countless God-adorned people to a fear-driven, empty life of sin-management, God-appeasement, and people-judging.

This is where I agree with him. I believe that God does NOT need to be appeased. I believe that God does NOT require payment before He forgives. He forgives us because He loves us. When Jesus came to show us what God is like, humans killed Him – and He showed us that God loves and forgives, even then.

But back to the book:

All that time, I thought I knew love and how to give it, when, in truth, I knew nothing of it – receiving it, living it, sharing it. I thought loving people required doing so with careful restraint for fear you might extend too much grace and affirmation, or worst of all, catch their disease. Constantly pumping the brakes with people by restricting my love and qualifying His was indeed an unpleasant endeavor that never felt settled in my spirit. Yet, for so long, I believed that was the full extent for which God loved me – all at a safe distance, riddled with fine print.

He had a transformative experience, though, when he was in a dark place.

For the first time in my adult life, I encountered Grace – unconditional, irrevocable, unremovable, pure, undiluted Grace. It wasn’t a theology, philosophy, or new way of thinking; it was a person – Jesus. So much of what I thought and was taught was true of God, actually wasn’t. He wasn’t angry, condemning, judging, scorekeeping, disappointed, nor dismayed. He didn’t care about anything else but loving me – nothing. There was no follow up, no fine print, no bait and switch, no add-ons nor requirements. Love was “It,” the whole thing, from beginning to end – not my love for Him, but His love for me. That’s all there was, that’s all that was needed….

For sure, it didn’t happen overnight, but in a way and at a depth like never before, I tasted and saw that God was indeed good, really good, better than I ever imagined, far beyond the capacity of my Evangelical mind to conceive. I didn’t have to rationalize Him, overlook a conservative Evangelically imposed case of divine schizophrenia placed upon Him, nor prop Him up with talking points that dance around people’s doubts. He was truly good, through and through, and needed none of my conservative Evangelical snake oil to do His bidding. And best of all, now the goodness that is me, that has always been good, whole, and pure – goodness that had long been denied and imprisoned, was suddenly given freedom to live. I was alive for the first time, breathing for the first time, loving for the first time, and allowing myself to be loved for the first time. Salvation had come – Jesus is enough, I am enough, love is enough – period, full stop. I was a man awakened by Grace in just the nick of time. Everything that truly matters began its beginning, and everything else that doesn’t, started its ending.

The rest of the book is mainly about getting that message of Grace across.

Hear me, and hear me well. Whatever sense of condemnation, shame, disappointment, or lack you have towards yourself (or others), it does not come from God – it can’t. Run from any message that puts any conditions, any hell, or any distance between you and Him. Contrary to what is largely taught throughout American Christianity, all of these are constructs of religious projection and sure poison to the soul….

God is Love from top to bottom, beginning to end – inside and out. The expanse of God who is Love is boundless, limitless, unrestricted, and unrestrained. His actions and reactions to every molecule and movement of your life is always Love. God is pedal-to-the-metal in love with you – always has been, always will be.

He says that the Gospel is about Grace, not about Repentance. And I so agree with him about this!

See, the truly good news is that our unconditional, irreversible inclusion in Christ with all its benefits is the gift – there’s nothing to receive, only everything to believe. When Jesus said, “It’s finished,” He meant it. Faith is simply awakening and resting fully in this Truth – realizing it’s never been about our performance, but always about His. Any “repentance” and relational aspects of Scripture must be understood, not as admonitions for our required response, but as cues to awaken to the fullness and sufficiency of Grace that is already ours, completely and irrevocably. This difference changes everything, and makes the Gospel truly good news.

His message – and I agree with this, too – is that condemnation is not from God.

Make no mistake, Jesus didn’t die to riddle your life (or any other) with condemnation in any form. Jesus doesn’t love you to fill your heart with conditions. Jesus didn’t create heaven to lose you to the possibility of hell. For any message that declares condemnation from God or places conditions to love, falls drastically short of reflecting God and understanding Him who is Love.

I love this part. Yes, this makes people about whom others will say “See how they love one another!”

To think that I no longer had to prequalify people for love (including myself) and spiritually police the world with conditions and condemnation, brought an emancipation to my heart that was freeing me from the slavery of conservative Evangelical religiosity.

He talks about the Evangelical attitude of weaponizing the Bible – and asserting that your own interpretation of it is the very Mind of God. He reminds us, “If the writers of the Bible captured the sum, conclusion, and depth of all that is truth, there would be no need for the One Who Is Truth to reveal it and His Spirit to guide us in it.”

Evangelicals seem to be obsessed with sin – and he has some pointed things to say about how they would act if they were truly concerned about sin.

First, conservative Evangelical Christianity would be aggressively focused on their own sin, not the perceived sins of others….

Second, conservative Evangelical Christianity would be communicating far more Grace and kindness. In fact, conservative Evangelical Christians would be ascribed as undeniably being the kindest most gracious people on the planet, trumpeting the message of the pure Gospel of Grace at every opportunity – knowing and teaching that, “It is God’s kindness that leads to repentance,” and “It’s the Grace of God that teaches us to live rightly.” Sin would be taken so seriously that pure Grace would be valued as the only solution….

Third, conservative Evangelical Christianity would be truly and completely trusting the Spirit. For the Christian calling isn’t to change people, but to love them unconditionally while the Spirit does what only the Spirit can do. In the presence of perceived sin, conservative Evangelical Christians would be doing everything possible to get out of the way of the Spirit and to doubly make sure they didn’t serve as a detriment or distraction to the Spirit’s work. They would be so sensitive to this movement in people’s lives that to potentially err on the side of thwarting God’s transformative hand through fostering false guilt, shame, and condemnation, would send shivers down their spine, causing them to value restraint above all else – if it was all about sin.

And finally, conservative Evangelical Christianity would be unconditionally serving and loving to the extreme. In fact, conservative Evangelical Christianity would be declared the greatest friend a person could have, especially those labeled as “sinners.” The way conservative Evangelical Christians generously served, put their needs aside, and extravagantly loved people who have been marginalized, condemned, and demonized would be so world-renowned that people might become attracted to engage in sin or experience religious oppression just for the overwhelming love and selfless serving they would receive in response from conservative Evangelical Christians.

There’s an entire chapter called “Maybe This Is the Real Reason You Believe Being Gay Is a Sin.” Here’s a bit from that chapter:

In a Christian church-world where there are over 30,000 denominations who read the very same Bible you do, and come to thousands of different belief-conclusions on major theological issues; in a Christian church-world where elective misunderstanding and ignorance are seen as legitimate positions instead of serious problems; in a Christian church-world where there are countless, growing numbers of biblical scholars with the same love for Jesus, submissive heart for Scripture, and tenacity for Truth as you, who see the Bible as affirming LGBTQ people, not condemning them; maybe, just maybe, the real reason you believe being gay is a sin is because – you want to. It’s not the Bible saying so, it’s you saying so.

In fact, if one can be faithful to the sacred Scriptures and yet come to an LGBTQ-affirming view (which you can) instead of condemning, demonizing, and abusing a whole God-adorned population of humans, why wouldn’t you? Maybe, just maybe, the real reason is because – you don’t want to.

I must admit that I do believe there will be judgment after death. But that judgment will be for correction, not for retribution, and it will not last forever. As for hell, I’m much, much closer to Chris Kratzer’s beliefs about hell than about the evangelical belief in a place of unending torment. That, I do NOT believe in. He’s got a whole chapter on it, but these few paragraphs give a taste:

So, as difficult, foundation-shaking, and faith-unraveling as this question could potentially be, I’m still going to ask it – what if hell is nothing like you think?

What if hell (if a place at all) is actually just as Jesus alluded, a literal place (Gehenna) located in Jerusalem, associated with the valley of Hinnom that was used as the city dump where a fire was constantly kept to burn up and consume all of the city’s unwanted junk? In fact, the word Gehenna occurs 12 times in the Greek Manuscripts of the New Testament, each time being mistranslated to mean “hell” in several versions of the Bible, even though Jesus used it as a clear reference to a city dump.

What if it’s an embarrassingly huge stretch of theological abuse to determine in one moment that the admonition by Jesus to “pluck your eye out” is certainly not to be taken literally, but, yet, in the next moment, His literal use of “Gehenna” in the same sentence should somehow be unequivocally understood to refer figuratively to a real place in the bottom of the earth where people are tortured by the wrath of God in eternal flames? Really?…

What if the single word “hell” we use today and associate as “hell” (a place of fiery, eternal torture) is actually not found in the Bible – anywhere, and in no manuscripts? It’s true.

What if, in fact, much of modern Christianity’s convenient love affair with a hell of flames, wrath, and demons comes much more from the influence of Dante’s “Inferno” than ever could be derived from the true words of Jesus?

There’s more, but I find I like this image:

What if hell is the experience of religious-hearted people who despise the pure Grace of God and His unconditional love and inclusion of all people into Himself and the Kingdom? In the eternal presence of the white-hot love of God forever flowing out as a river from His throne (Daniel 7:10), their souls are scorched with frustration, rage, and torment as their self-righteousness, conditional love, and religious arrogance, bigotry, and intolerance are exposed – stripped, and rendered powerless and evil. For the same Grace and love that will be experienced as heaven by many will be a sure, torturous hell for some. Jesus forever flips over the tables, yet again, and those whom religion joyously sends to the curb are given a prized seat of bliss, and those whom religion gives elite privilege are found to be pouting and wallowing forever in religious disgust.

And I love this about God and about Jesus’ death:

What if Jesus didn’t die to forgive us, but to manifest to the world that God already had, long ago in the realm of eternity?

What if God isn’t schizophrenic after all – harboring unconditional love for humanity one moment and eternal hate the next?

What if the truth is, you can’t reject Grace – you can’t stop its presence, pursuit, favor, or blessings over your life or that of any other, you can only love it or resist it? Loving, believing, trusting Grace fills your life with heavenly rest. Not loving, believing, and trusting Grace fills your life with a hell of frustration, self-righteousness, bitterness, religiosity, judgmentalism and angst – as long as you desire.

There’s a lot more, such as why people stay away from evangelical churches. (They don’t feel loved.) I especially loved what he had to say about learning to minister to that lesbian woman from the beginning of the book:

For so long, my conservative Evangelical faith required me to pump the brakes on loving her, and to make sure I kept a safe distance. Any bit of love that I might send her way must be packaged with conditions and restrictions, lest she be led astray.

Yet, I’ll never forget the moment. It felt like the heavens did open this time when I realized I could love her without restraint or restriction, my heart was finally free. I knew in that moment, in a way like never before, that Jesus truly lived within me. For no one loves like Jesus until they love without conditions, restrictions, or restraints.

Isn’t this what your heart has been longing for, to feel the full force of Jesus living through you?

There’s a wonderful scene where he explains what happened with his teenage son. I think it beautifully symbolizes what we think God the Father is like toward us.

In the past, they’d been having some trouble, and the father made “a long, written covenant of behavioral conditions that he would have to fulfill, making sure our expectations were perfectly clear. If he was complicit, good things would result. If not, the daunting consequences were sure. I sat him down, went over the contract, and sternly pasted it on the refrigerator door, just like any good conservative Evangelical would do.”

It didn’t work out all that well. But it wasn’t long after that when Chris Kratzer had a change of heart.

One evening, with a fresh new heart and perspective, I summoned Harrison into the kitchen. I grasped the covenant off the refrigerator and tore it in half, throwing it onto the floor. I told Harrison, there will be no more punishment, conditions, nor condemnation. “We love you, and that’s the beginning and end of all that matters.” I impressed upon him my sincere apologies for being such a grace-less dad, and asked for his forgiveness. He was free to choose the course of his behaviors, not out of fear of punishment or obligation to a set of rules, but because He is loved and deserves the blessings of choosing well. You could see the surprise in his eyes and a new countenance wash over him. I kid you not, from that day forward, his heart, attitude, and behavior forever changed for the better.

That anecdote makes me wonder, Why, why, why do we think that “calling out sin” will help people come out of it?

I’ve written a long review, but there’s so much more in this book. Okay, there are some typos, and some spots less well-organized than others. But don’t let that block its powerful and needed message. It’s well worth reading, and I highly recommend it. I’ll finish with this truly Good News:

Yes, it’s true, there is a Gospel that is devoid of fiery judgment, religious condemnation, guilt-trips, “to-do” lists, love-prequalifying, and people-shaming. There is a Gospel where everyone is deemed equal, affirmed, included, and eternally loved and valued. There is a Gospel absent of an angry, vengeful God who requires the murder of His Son and the proper religious responses of His creation in order to forgive and save humanity. There is a Gospel where God loves unconditionally, because that’s who He is and can do no other. There is a Gospel that stands against all violence, abuse, and idolatry, and, yet, in all these things, is no less biblical. This Gospel is not a fad, a new theology, or some wayward heresy – it’s a person, and that person is Jesus who is pure Grace.

chriskratzer.com

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Review of The Power of Love, by Michael Curry

Tuesday, December 25th, 2018

The Power of Love

Sermons, Reflections, and Wisdom to Uplift and Inspire

by Bishop Michael Curry

Avery (Penguin Random House), 2018. 92 pages.

This little book contains five sermons preached by Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, beginning with the 2018 Royal Wedding sermon.

All of the sermons do stress the power of love, and the importance of love in the life of any Christian – love toward anyone and everyone, without distinction.

Here’s a short bit from one of the sermons that sums up his philosophy:

We come in love. I would submit that the teaching of Jesus to love God and love our neighbor is at the core and the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. And we must be people who reclaim Christianity from its popular modality, from the way it is often perceived and presented, to a way of Christianity that looks something like Jesus. And Jesus said, Love God and love your neighbor, so we come in love.

That is the core of our faith. That is the heart of it. And we come, because we are Christian and the way of love calls for us to be humanitarian. It calls for us to care for those who have no one to care for them.

There are only five sermons, and they are not long. The sermons work well as a morning devotional reading. They will inspire you and have you looking for opportunities to love.

penguinrandomhouse.com

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Disclosure: I am an Amazon Affiliate, and will earn a small percentage if you order a book on Amazon after clicking through from my site.

Source: This review is based on a library book from Fairfax County Public Library.

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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