Archive for the ‘Christian’ Category

Review of Flames of Love, by Heath Bradley

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

Flames of Love

Hell and Universal Salvation

by Heath Bradley

Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2012. 176 pages.
Starred Review

Recently, I posted on Facebook an article that questioned the common view of hell in evangelical churches. The article referenced the fact that it isn’t entirely clear in the Greek text how the word should be translated – there’s definitely a strong case to be made that eternal conscious torment is not what’s intended in the original Greek after all.

This did get the attention of some of my friends and relatives. During the discussion that followed, I picked up this book that I’d purchased awhile back and had been meaning to read – and I love it. In fact, it’s completely pertinent. Every objection that people brought up in the online discussion is directly addressed, as are many others.

This book is for people who, like me, believe that the Bible is the Word of God. If you aren’t concerned about whether the Bible is entirely true or not, you don’t need this book to convince you that a loving God probably isn’t going to threaten his creatures with everlasting conscious torment.

But if you think Isn’t that what the Bible says?, so that you think you have to believe this if you believe the Bible, I strongly recommend reading this book. The author takes Scripture seriously and shows that it may be much more responsible interpretation to take a different view.

Now, a key word here is “everlasting.” When talking about hell, the Greek word used is aeonian, or “lasting eons.” I knew about this from my other reading. It does not mean going on and on without end, even though it may mean a very long time. Christian Universalists do not believe that hell is not real, but that it will not last forever. They also believe that the Bible’s promises that all will be made alive in Christ are completely true.

Here are a few sections from the introduction.

I believe hell is very real, yet I also believe that a God who is love is also real, and that this God gets the last word.

I related to this next passage. When I became a Universalist, I was afraid that it would destroy any motivation to evangelize. But instead, it made me feel hugely better about evangelism. Now I feel I actually have good news!

If the message that Jesus came to bring is that most people will actually spend an eternity experiencing the most horrible torment conceivable, well, to be honest, I can think of much better news than that! That theological vision does not strike me as good news at all. It certainly does not set my heart on fire with a joyous desire to share this news with as many people as I can. In fact, when I thought that this view of things was indispensable for Christianity, it made me feel anxious to think about and embarrassed to talk about. God, it seemed to me, had a dark side underneath the veneer of grace and goodness, contrary to how John summed up the meaning of Jesus’s message that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

There is, however, a theological vision that does strike me as good news, indeed as the best news possible for the world. It is a vision that fills my heart and soul with grateful awe and joyful excitement. It is a vision that I believe is Christ-centered, biblically-grounded, spiritually-compelling, and life-inspiring. In this book, we are concerned with understanding and evaluating a specific Christian vision of God and God’s relationship to humanity known as Christian universalism. Although this view will be fleshed out throughout the book, we can define it initially and simply as the belief that ultimately every person will be saved through Christ. This vision of salvation stands in sharp contrast, of course, to the dominant Christian vision of hell which we can define as the belief that all people who are not Christians will spend eternity in conscious torment.

Here’s another thought worth pondering:

From the outset it should be noted that in the Christian church’s traditional view of hell, not only Hitler spends an eternity in hell, but also his victims. Six million Jews suffered horrific torment in this life from Hitler, yet on the dominant Christian view of hell, after they died they entered into a realm of unending torment and punishment at the hands of God because they did not profess Christ as Lord. One has to honestly ask who comes off looking worse, Hitler or God? I bring this point up now just so we can have clear in our minds what we are dealing with when it comes to the traditional view of hell. This is certainly a doctrine that raises lots of theological questions and moral objections that need to be given thoughtful attention.

And he makes some very good points about interpretation. This is from that discussion:

Christians have been reading the same Bible and holding greatly different beliefs for over two thousand years now. Awareness of this historical fact alone should make us quick to listen to others, and slow to assume our position is the obviously right one. It should also give us pause before accusing someone of denying biblical authority just because they question the legitimacy of our interpretations. In other words, in questioning hell we are not throwing away the biblical puzzle pieces we do not like, we are simply questioning if the picture on the lid that we have received from the dominant tradition actually gives us the best way to put all the pieces together. Perhaps there is a better picture that can make room for more of the pieces to fit together better. At this point we need to acknowledge that people who disagree with our own biblical interpretations are not necessarily denying the Bible, but simply questioning the lenses through which we currently see the Bible.

I do like this take on it, looking at the big picture of theology:

Christian universalism simply affirms with Calvinists that God can and will do whatever God desires to do, and with the Arminians that God desires to save all people. Put those premises together, and you get the conclusion that God will save all people….

Consider the following three statements, each of which, at least on the surface has some degree of biblical support:

1. God loves every human being the same and desires all to be saved.
2. God has the power to accomplish God’s redemptive desires.
3. Some people will remain in hell forever.

The three statements, taken together, are contradictory. One of them must be false. Calvinists deny the first one. Arminians deny the second one. Universalists deny the third one. At the beginning of the debate, why assume that the first two are up for discussion, but the third one is untouchable, as Christians so often do? Why assume the priority and clarity of the everlasting hell passages while being willing to reinterpret the passages used in support for the other two claims? At the end of the day, each position has to try to explain why some passages do not mean what they appear to mean. While I think the universalist position does a better job than the other two in making the most sense of the whole of the biblical witness, at this point my hope is that you can see that Christian universalism is a position at least as worthy of consideration as the other two major theological systems.

In the main text, the author takes the approach of using each chapter to address one of six objections to universalism.

The first objection is “Universalists don’t believe in hell.” Here’s a bit of the answer to that:

Judgment need not be everlasting conscious torment in order for it to be very serious. This cannot be emphasized enough. Christian universalists do not deny the reality of judgment and hell, they simply contend that judgment and hell should be conceptualized and imagined in such a way as to be congruent with a God who is genuinely loving to all people and who therefore seeks what is best for all people.

This is the chapter where the author talks about the Greek word gehenna and what it would have meant to Jesus’ followers. While the Bible clearly teaches there is a hell, it’s not absolutely clear it means the currently popular depiction of hell. Here’s another good point the author makes:

In applying this to the question of hell and judgment, I am not suggesting that since God is like a loving parent there is no judgment. What I am suggesting is that however we conceptualize and imagine the reality of hell, it must be consistent with the affirmation of Jesus that God relates to us as a loving parent, and loving parents only punish their children for the purpose of correction and restoration. If you are inclined at this point to object that I am limiting God by reducing God to the confines of good parenting on a human level, I would remind you that it was Jesus himself who taught us to think of divine goodness on the analogy of human parental goodness. If divine goodness is completely of a different kind than the goodness of a human parent, then Jesus’s admonition wouldn’t make any sense and there would be no use comparing the two. I don’t think that can be emphasized enough.

Here’s another good point in that chapter:

I confess that I am often baffled when defenders of the traditional view of an everlasting hell say things like, “God will not tolerate sinners.” I know this doesn’t sound very nice to say, but it really makes me wonder if they have ever paid close attention to Jesus’s life. If one thing is abundantly clear about Jesus’s life, it is that he not only tolerated sinners, he loved them, ate with them, and accepted them into fellowship with himself, to the chagrin of the top religious leaders of his day (Luke 15:1-2). If we believe that Jesus reveals God more than anything or anyone else, as Christians have always believed, then how can we ever come to the conclusion that God cannot tolerate sinners? The Pharisees were the ones who thought that God could not tolerate sinners, not Jesus and his followers.

The second objection is “Universalists don’t believe the Bible.” The answer is that universalists interpret the Bible differently – and there are strong hermeneutical reasons to interpret the Bible as we do.

Here’s a bit of his discussion about that:

As I see the debate, the traditionalists and the universalists both have a difficult interpretive task set before them. To put it concisely, the traditionalists have to try to explain why “all” doesn’t really mean all when it comes to who will be saved, and the universalists have to explain why “eternal” doesn’t really mean eternal when it comes to the duration of the punishment in the age to come. I will argue that I think the universalist position is more exegetically sound and theologically coherent than the traditionalist position, but before getting there, it is important to see that both positions have a similar predicament. Oftentimes Christians of a traditionalist perspective seem to think that the Christians who have a universalist perspective have the burden of proof on them. But, as we have argued, there is no good reason to simply assume from the start that the traditionalist passages should be taken as primary and more clear than the universalist passages. Certainly the weight of tradition leads many people to quickly filter out the universalist passages without much thought, but this is not a fair way to proceed in examining these texts. We should be willing to set aside, as best we can, our preconceived and inherited notions of which texts are really “clear,” and see which position can do the best job of accounting for the other set of passages.

Here he looks at the strong case that “all” does mean all, but that “eternal,” hasn’t been translated well, and means “pertaining to an age.” He treats it as a serious interpretive question. It’s good to realize that this is an interpretive question, and not a matter of whether you believe the Bible or not.

I like this sentence toward the end of the chapter:

God does not punish people instead of saving them from their sins, but, if the foregoing picture of divine punishment is true, God punishes people (by showing them the essential ugliness of their sins) so that God can save them.

Objection #3 is “Universalists deny human freedom.”

Again, the answer is a chapter long. Here’s a bit of it:

Christian universalism deeply values human freedom, so much so that it holds that God will not even take it away in the age to come. Freedom to choose God does not end at death in this view, as it does for traditionalists. In addition to extending human freedom in the age to come, the Christian universalist can also criticize the free-will defense of an everlasting hell for failing to take into account several important features about the nature of human freedom. In this chapter, we will explore how the account of human freedom offered in a free-will defense of everlasting hell fails to consider two very important things: the power of God to change a human will, and the inherently socially-embedded and constrained nature of human freedom. In other words, the free-will defenders of an everlasting hell do not give enough credit to the power of divine love, and they give too much credit to the power of human choices.

He waxes eloquent about the power of God’s love here. (And this is partly why I love the theory of universalism. How great God is in His great love!)

It seems that this comes down to whether or not we should have more confidence in the power of human sin, or the power of divine grace. I’m going with divine grace. Paul writes that “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” (Rom. 5:20). At the end of the day, I believe that God’s love for us will be more relentless than our rejection of him, and that is why I am a universalist. I do not at all underestimate how deeply rooted self-centered and sinful patterns of living can be, but at the same time I do not think we should underestimate the power of God’s just and holy love to pull the roots of sin out of our hearts.

If I am proven to be wrong about this, if some will forever hold out against God, then I think God will not be offended if I put too much confidence in the power of divine love. Even if one doesn’t go all the way in affirming that God will ultimately heal every human heart and transform every evil will through destroying all sin with the fire of his holy love, it seems to me that every Christian should at least have hope in the possibility of this happening. Jesus, after all, told us that, “with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). We should take careful note of the fact that when Jesus said this he was explicitly referring to the power of God to save even those who seem impossible to save from a merely human perspective (Matt. 19:23-26). When it comes to who can be saved, our hope is in divine possibility, not in human probabilities.

The fourth objection addressed is “Universalists think all religions are equally true.”

Now, some universalists may think this, but not the Christian universalism presented here. First he presents the views of pluralism and exclusivism. He’s a little bit harsh about exclusivism.

The exclusivist viewpoint, when pressed, has a supreme irony, or shall I say contradiction, at the heart of its claim. It claims that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, yet for the people who do not know about how much God loves them, God will subject them to never-ending suffering. While this view certainly highlights the central role of Christ in our salvation, it ultimately paints God as something of an arbitrary tyrant rather than the loving parent Jesus describes.

He does present an alternative:

Fortunately, there is a third option available to us that preserves what is good about pluralism and exclusivism, while avoiding the pitfalls that come with both of these views. This view is known as inclusivism. According to this view, Christ is the only way to God, yet the saving work of Christ is not limited to people who in this life knowingly and intentionally put their trust in Christ.

I love this perspective about the calling of Abraham. I’d never noticed this thread before, and it rings true to look at it this way:

Another key aspect of the argument for inclusivism is the broad scriptural theme of God’s saving love that reaches out to the whole world. From the beginning of the biblical story of redemption, God reveals himself to be a God who is not concerned with only a small set of people in the world, but rather with all the people of the world. In fact, God’s particular election of the people of Abraham is for the universal purpose of drawing all people into the blessing of God (Gen. 12:1-3). The Christian tradition has mostly missed this point in a huge way, and has instead talked about “election” as pertaining to the salvation of some instead of others. But in the biblical story, election is about a calling for the sake of others. Election is not a matter of God favoring some people over others. Election is a matter of God choosing some people to be instruments of blessings to the rest of the people. It is never about God choosing some individuals for redemptive privilege, but rather it is about God choosing a group of people for missional service.

The fifth objection is “Universalism undermines evangelism.”

I enjoyed this chapter, because when I first decided to embrace universalism, this was the biggest objection in my mind – and then I found, to my surprise, that I was much happier telling people about my faith, so it came much more naturally. I no longer felt like I had to tell bad-news-good-news, but no, I believe that the message is purely good news. God loves everyone utterly – and He’s going to redeem everyone!

The author seems to have had the same transformation of his feelings about evangelism. And he makes some excellent additional points in this chapter.

While belief in an everlasting hell may be what has motivated many evangelists and missionaries, I would argue that it is precisely this belief that has largely contributed to a transactional, decision-oriented focus towards evangelism that has made accepting the gospel the minimal entrance requirement for heaven. In contrast, Jesus said evangelism is to be about making disciples by teaching people how to live as he taught through empowerment of his Spirit. If we think that people are going to be tortured for an eternity if they do not believe the right things, then all of our focus is on getting them to say a certain prayer or accept a certain creed to escape that fate. What matters, on this view, isn’t getting the whole gospel into people as deeply as possible, but rather what becomes top priority is simply getting just a part of the gospel into as many people as possible. But, wehn the part becomes the whole, then the whole thing gets distorted. Teaching people how to live in the Way of Christ becomes optional on this view, instead of being essential as Christ said it should be.

He makes a great point about the first Christian sermons in the Bible:

Interestingly, “hell” is never mentioned in any of the sermons recorded in the book of Acts. This is highly significant because Acts offers us an account of the spread of the church in its earliest years (from roughly 30-60 AD). The whole book is filled with one missionary story after another, and yet not once do the apostles threaten eternal punishment to people if they do not accept their good news. They didn’t see their mission as getting people to buy “celestial fire insurance.” They do preach a judgment in the age to come, but as we have seen, one cannot simply read into an affirmation of judgment an eternally dualistic outcome. While the preachers in Acts do not preach a doctrine of everlasting hell, one preacher named Peter did in fact proclaim that one day there would be a “restoration of all things.” Even though Peter apparently believed that one day God would restore and reclaim all things, this didn’t at all dampen his missionary zeal. In fact, Peter argues that because one day the work of Christ will be consummated in a universal restoration, we should repent here and now so our sins will be forgiven and so that we can begin to live in tune with how life in the kingdom of God will be (Acts 3:19)….

The logic of Christian universalism isn’t that because all will be reconciled to God, we should therefore not be concerned about how life is lived here and now. No, the logic of Christian universalism is that because we are all headed towards an inescapable encounter with the complete truth about ourselves and about God, we should open ourselves up to the light of God here and now so that the light can begin to dispel the darkness and we can begin to be transformed now and experience a glimpse of the fullness and richness of life with God in the age to come (Acts 3:20).

The sixth and final objection addressed is “Universalism undermines holy living.”

I appreciated the author’s take on Holiness. I’d never thought of it this way before, but once my eyes are opened I notice that, yes, this fits with many, many passages in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments:

If the charge is made against Christian universalism that it dilutes the motivation for holy living, not only can the previous defense be offered, but we can also go on the offensive and make the case that it is actually the traditional doctrine of everlasting hell that potentially undermines holy living insofar as it actually distorts what God’s holiness is all about. Recall that earlier we said God’s holiness is God’s “otherness,” that is, it is what makes God essentially different from us. According to the traditionalists, God’s holiness lies in God’s right to retributively punish sin forever out of being offended by human sin. However, Jesus defined God’s holy perfection much differently. He didn’t describe God’s holiness as God’s desire or need to restore his offended majesty, but rather he explicitly and clearly defined God’s holiness as God’s unbounded love for God’s enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). Remember, it was the Pharisees who defined God’s holiness in terms of separation from sinners. The Pharisees (whose name means “separate ones”) excluded sinners from their fellowship because they believed they were imitating the way God relates to sinners. Jesus, on the other hand, welcomed sinners into fellowship with himself because he believed he was imitating the way God relates to sinners. Jesus subversively redefined God’s holiness as compassion, not separation. When thinking about the holiness of God, it is crucially important that we let Jesus define divine holiness for us, since he is the pinnacle of God’s revelation to us. “No one has ever seen God,” the apostle John writes, but Jesus “who is close to the Father’s heart has made him known” (John 1:18). God is holy, to be sure, but traditional defenders of hell rely far too much on the vision of divine holiness put forth by the Pharisees, and not enough on the way Jesus revealed the holiness of God as compassionate love.

Taking that a step further:

On the traditional view, God essentially asks of humanity what God is not willing to do. God asks us to not seek merely retributive punishment and to forgive indefinitely, yet God is not willing to do this himself. On the traditional view, it is easier to write people off and condemn them because it is believed deep down that this is what God in fact does with the majority of people. On the universalist view, restorative justice and reconciliation are the ultimate reality. Because the universalist believes that the world is heading towards the reconciliation of all things, we are motivated and inspired here and now to begin to make that a reality.

In the final chapter, Heath Bradley looks at some remaining questions with shorter answers. I like his way of wrapping up the book:

I realize that there are legitimate questions to be asked and genuine concerns to be raised with the view that holds that ultimately all will be saved through Christ. I hope I have addressed them in thoughtful and helpful ways, although I am sure I have not done so in such a way as to dispel all doubt. My hopeful belief is that these remaining doubts and concerns will turn out to be similar to the question that the women disciples asked on their way to the tomb, concerning how the stone will be rolled away (Mark 16:3). They discovered, beyond their ability to imagine or conceive, that with God, all things really are possible. Christian universalism is the conviction that their discovery, that the darkness cannot overcome the light, will one day belong to us all.

I’ve included lots of excerpts here, because I love the logic and thoroughness of his thinking, and I wanted to give a taste of it. Please be aware that this is not the entire book! If you find these arguments at all compelling, I encourage you to read further. If you find yourself dismissing all of them, you might also want to read further and get more background, understand more clearly why someone who solidly believes that the Bible is the Word of God also believes that hell is not a place of everlasting conscious torment.

I’ve done a lot of reading on this topic over many years now, and I love the way this one sums up many good arguments and brings up some new ones, and does so clearly and consistently. This author has read many of the same books I have!

But I also love his take on God’s holiness as expressed above all in God’s forgiveness. And I love the way his love for God and for sinners shines through in these pages.

And praise be to God’s great, unending, amazing Love that indeed gets the last word!

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Review of Imagine Heaven, by John Burke

Friday, April 14th, 2017

Imagine Heaven

Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future That Awaits You

by John Burke

Baker Books, 2015. 348 pages.
Starred Review

Imagine Heaven looks at accounts of near-death experiences (NDEs) from all over the world, from various cultures, religions, and backgrounds — and shows how the accounts match what the Bible says about heaven.

I’ve been interested in near-death experiences for awhile. Most of the books I’ve reviewed on the topic were quoted in this book: Proof of Heaven, Heaven Is For Real, To Heaven and Back, and even the book where the author went to hell first, My Descent Into Death. (Reading my review of My Descent Into Death, it was apparently the book that got me started reading other such books.)

Author John Burke does stick with a strictly evangelical perspective in his interpretation of the experiences. I tend to think they give support to Universalism. But one thing that is striking, which I hadn’t noticed before, is how those who have experienced NDEs describe heaven using very similar terms with the descriptions in Revelation.

When I was in the middle of reading this book, my sister had a dream about our mother, who is in late-stage Alzheimer’s. She dreamed that they were climbing stairs together. My Mom was much better, happy and eager, and climbing the stairs. At the top, there was a door, and Jesus was at the door. Becky left Mom with Jesus, and Mom was so happy to be there. Reading this book, and a dream like that, reminds me that Yes, heaven is a wonderful place. Yes, what’s important is Love.

The highlight of many NDEs, for all who claim to have come near, is this mystical Being of Light who fills them with a love beyond imagination.

A common experience across cultures is that this Being of Light gives them a Life Review.

One of the greatest indications that the God NDErs describe is the God of the Jewish/Christian Scriptures is how they depict their life review in his presence. Despite vividly seeing all their deeds, good and evil, and all the relational ripple effects of both, they do not experience a Being who desires to condemn. They experience a compassion coming from this Being of Light.

The author looks at the work of other researchers:

Dr. Long talks about how the unified theme of thousands of NDEs is the importance of love first. Muhammad in Egypt said after his NDE, “I felt that love is the one thing that all humans must feel towards each other.

The book does go on about details — the “sea of glass, clear as crystal,” the “rainbow that shone like an emerald,” the streets of pure gold, like glass. The author throws in lots of interpretation — but with many valid conclusions.

For me, the book encouraged and uplifted me, reminding me that God is Love, that heaven is not something to fear, and that what’s important, in this life and the next, is Love.

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Review of Champagne for the Soul, by Mike Mason

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

champagne_for_the_soul_largeChampagne for the Soul

Rediscovering God’s Gift of Joy

by Mike Mason

Regent College Publishing, Vancouver, B. C., 2007. 190 pages.
Starred Review

A big thank-you to my sister Becky for recommending this book!

Here’s how the author introduces this book:

In October 1999 I began a ninety-day experiment in joy. I made up my mind that for the next ninety days I would be joyful in the Lord. Because this was an experiment, there was room for failure. If there were times when I wasn’t joyful, I wouldn’t despair or beat myself up. Rather I would gently, persistently return as best I could to my focus on joy.

So began (and continues to this day) the happiest time of my life. This book is the record of that experiment in joy, along with other thoughts on joy that came to me later. While I was astounded by the results of my initial experiment, I deliberately waited before writing a book. I knew my ideas needed time to mature, and more important, I had to see whether the new joy that had flooded my life would endure. Amazingly, it has. My original thesis turned out to be true: Joy is like a muscle, and the more you exercise it, the stronger it grows.

The book consists of 90 two-page chapters. Each one begins with a verse, and then some thoughts about aspects of joy.

I’ll admit that it wasn’t until I was more than two-thirds of the way through the book that I decided to try a full-fledged experiment with joy myself. So my plan was to turn around and start the book over again.

However, today, the very day I finished reading the book, my church small group met for the first time since taking the summer off, and we were trying to decide what study to do this next season. I threw out the idea of using this book — and they immediately loved the idea.

So — I’m going to try an experiment in joy along with a close group of Christian friends! I think that’s going to add layers of richness to the experience.

And this book is a wonderful guide to bring along. There aren’t “study questions.” Mike Mason writes about his own experiences with joy, which I think will encourage us to think about our own experiences and share them with each other.

This isn’t a how-to book. More of a travelogue about one person’s journey with Jesus into a new experience of joy and encouragement for others who may choose to follow a similar path.

As I was reading, I found dozens of quotes I loved, and I’m slowly loading them into Sonderquotes. You can get an idea of the sort of thing the author focuses on by reading these.

Now, I’m happily writing this review having finished the book but knowing that I’m only on the beginning of my journey with it. And next time around, I’m looking forward to having companions traveling with me.

I should add that when I first approached the book, it was as a casual reader, figuring I’d read good thoughts about joy. When I decided to actually try my own experiment with joy — 23 days ago — it suddenly got more personal, more immediate.

Not to give spoilers, but here are some words from the Epilogue:

My experiment has been wildly successful. Joy has indeed become an ingrained habit of my soul — so much a part of me that it hardly seems possible that I lived without it for nearly half a century. Not only am I much happier now than ever before, but I know it’s possible to keep moving in the direction of joy and to have more and more of it. In the search for joy a certain point arrives where the balance tips in our favor. We find we’re no longer striving for happiness; we’re simply happy. It’s like getting out of debt: Without a fat mortgage payment to dole out every month, life takes on an entirely different feel. Difficulties still come, perhaps grave ones, but joy keeps flowing into the hurts like a self-renewing stream.

I highly recommend this book. While it’s fantastic casual reading, I’ve found my experience with it got richer the more seriously I took it. What are you waiting for? Dive in!

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Review of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, by James Martin, S. J.

Saturday, September 3rd, 2016

jesuit_guide_largeThe Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything

A Spirituality for Real Life

by James Martin, S.J.

HarperOne (HarperCollins), 2010. 420 pages.
Starred Review

A big thank you to my friend Charles for recommending this book!

The title sums up the book well. This book takes a close look at how Jesuits approach life – and it applies to almost everything.

Charles recommended it as a good book for helping make decisions and figuring out your life path. I agree with him that it’s good for those things.

It’s a long book, and it took me a long time to read it, but it’s packed with good thoughts. The Jesuit perspective is a new one for me, yet from the same view of wanting to bring God into our lives. There are many good ideas and godly advice here.

James Martin begins the book by talking about Ignatian spirituality.

Ignatian spirituality considers everything an important element of your life. That includes religious services, sacred Scriptures, prayer, and charitable works, to be sure, but it also includes friends, family, work, relationships, sex, suffering, and joy, as well as nature, music, and pop culture. . . .

In Ignatian spirituality there is nothing that you have to put in a box and hide. Nothing has to be feared. Nothing has to be hidden away. Everything can be opened up before God.

That’s why this book is called The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. It’s not a guide to understanding everything about everything (thus the Almost). Rather, it’s a guide to discovering how God can be found in every dimension of your life. How God can be found in everything. And everyone, too.

Here are the kinds of questions that are proper to Ignatian spirituality, which we’ll discuss in the coming chapters:

How do I know what I’m supposed to do in life?

How do I know who I’m supposed to be?

How do I make good decisions?

How can I live a simple life?

How can I be a good friend?

How can I face suffering?

How can I be happy?

How can I find God?

How do I pray?

How do I love?

All these things are proper to Ignatian spirituality because all these things are proper to the human person.

That summarizes well the kind of things this book looks at – things about life and guidance and decisions and direction, things about love and friendship and a relationship with God. Father Martin’s style is personal and friendly, like a brother sharing his walk and his insights. He maybe rambles a little bit, but that adds to the non-threatening, friendly style.

The author interweaves his insights and advice with many, many stories – from his own life and from the lives of friends and mentors and people he has counseled. He also includes some Jesuit jokes! These are not abstract ideas, but time-tested wisdom – as the subtitle says, this is spirituality for real life.

James Martin ends the book with a prayer of total surrender, of offering all we are and have to God.

Why am I ending this book with such a “hard” prayer? To remind you that the spiritual life is a constant journey. For me, I don’t think I’ve ever been able to say that prayer and mean it completely. That is, I still want to hold on to all those things. And I’m not sure that I can say yet that all I need is God’s love and grace. I’m still too human for that. But as Ignatius said, it’s enough to have the desire for the desire. It’s enough to want that freedom. God will take care of the rest.

So together you and I are still on the way to being contemplatives in action, to finding God in all things, to seeing God incarnate in the world, and to seeking freedom and detachment.

The way of Ignatius has been traveled by millions of people searching for God in their daily lives. And for that way – easy at times, difficult at others, but always moving us closer to God – we can thank our friend, St. Ignatius Loyola.

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Review of Moving Mountains, by John Eldredge

Monday, July 4th, 2016

moving_mountains_largeMoving Mountains

Praying with Passion, Confidence, and Authority

by John Eldredge

Nelson Books, 2016. 248 pages.
Starred Review

My church Small Group went through this book this year, and we’ve been richly blessed.

Moving Mountains is a book about prayer, and praying effectively.

We have embarked on the most exciting story possible, filled with danger, adventure, and wonders. There is nothing more hopeful than the thought that things can be different, we can move mountains, and we have some role in bringing that change about.

As in his other books, John Eldredge reminds us that we are at war – but God has given us authority in the battle.

The Scriptures are a sort of wake-up call to the human race, a trumpet blast, to use Francis Thompson’s phrase, “from this hid battlements of eternity.” One alarm they repeatedly sound is that we are all caught up in the midst of a collision of kingdoms – the kingdom of God advancing with force against the kingdom of darkness, which for the moment holds most of the world in its clutches. Is this your understanding of the world you find yourself in? Does this shape the way you pray – and the way you interpret “unanswered” prayer?

The author also points out that God is growing us up. He’s teaching us to use the weapons He’s given us by throwing us into the battle.

Now, if you believed both assumptions, if they were woven into your deepest convictions about the world, you would want to learn to pray like a soldier wants to learn to use his weapon, like a smoke jumper wants to learn survival skills. We really have no idea what sort of breakthrough is actually possible until we learn to pray. Perhaps we, too, will be ending droughts and stopping wildfires.

With that background as to where we’re going, John Eldredge doesn’t leap right into prayer of warfare. He lays the groundwork, looking at our beliefs about God. Here’s a moving section:

A slave feels reluctant to pray; they feel they have no right to ask, and so their prayers are modest and respectful. They spend more time asking forgiveness than they do praying for abundance. They view the relationship with reverence, maybe more like fear, but not with the tenderness of love. Of being loved. There is no intimacy in the language or their feelings. Sanctified unworthiness colors their view of prayer. These are often “good servants of the Lord.”

An orphan is not reluctant to pray; they feel desperate. But their prayers feel more like begging than anything else. Orphans feel a great chasm between themselves and the One to whom they speak. Abundance is a foreign concept; a poverty mentality permeates their prayer lives. They ask for scraps; they expect scraps.

But not sons; sons know who they are.

Before he talks about praying for others, he covers our authority in Christ.

We really thought this life was simply about getting a nice little situation going for ourselves and living out the length of our days in happiness. I’m sorry to take that from you, but you and I shall soon be inheriting kingdoms, and we are almost illiterate when it comes to ruling. So God must prepare us to reign. How does he do this? In exactly the same way he grows us up – he puts us in situations that require us to pray and to learn how to use the authority that has been given to us. How else could it possibly happen?

After talking about prayers of intervention, the book goes on to talk about consecration and about daily prayer to align ourselves with God’s purposes. Then it covers prayer for guidance, listening prayer, praying Scripture, warfare prayer, and inner and outer healing. The final chapter talks about outcomes that are not what we had desired.

I love this reminder:

Life wins. Sometimes now, especially if we will pray. But life wins fully, and very soon.

Just as we must fix our eyes on Jesus when we pray, we must also fix our hearts on this one undeniable truth: life will win. When you know that unending joy is about to be yours, you live with such an unshakable confidence it will almost be a swagger. You can pray boldly, without fear, knowing that, “If this doesn’t work now, it will work totally and completely very soon.” We can have that kingdom attitude of Daniel’s friends, who said, “God is able to deliver, and he will deliver. But if not . . .” we will not lose heart. Period.

As we worked through this book, our Small Group found ourselves getting opportunities to practice what we were learning. We saw some mighty examples of God working. And we feel like we’re only at the beginning of our journey.

I highly recommend this book for personal study, but especially for group study if your group is ready for an adventure together.

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Review of Miracle Man, by John Hendrix

Tuesday, April 26th, 2016

miracle_man_largeMiracle Man

The Story of Jesus

by John Hendrix

Abrams Books for Young Readers, New York, 2016. 44 pages.
Starred Review

This is a picture book telling about the life of Jesus Christ, done by an accomplished picture book illustrator.

Now, I personally am not completely crazy about the book, since I have my own conception of Jesus’ story, and there’s some necessary simplification. For example, he gives Andrew’s lines to Peter (the only disciple named in this book, besides Judas) in the story of the feeding of the five thousand.

But the more I look at this book, the more it’s growing on me. John Hendrix makes the characters in the story look like Jews. Jesus looks tough, and his clothes are a little ragged. But the most interesting feature is that he makes the words of Jesus part of the art and larger than life.

The author introduces Jesus like this:

On a day that didn’t seem at all unusual, there came an unusual Man. He looked like any other man, but he was like none who had ever lived before. This Man was God’s son. When he spoke, his words made things happen. His words came . . . ALIVE

[ALIVE is spelled out by butterflies in the illustration.]

The stories told about Jesus include calling the disciples and the miraculous catch of fish, healing a leper, healing the paralytic (after his friends broke through the ceiling), and calming the sea. I especially like the author’s paraphrase of Jesus’ words after he stops the storm:

I am the Son of the living God who made the water and the winds. Did you forget who was in your boat?

The story goes on with the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on the water, including Peter walking on the water. (“Peter, have faith in my feet, not your own.”) Then we come to the Last Supper and Judas’ betrayal.

The crucifixion is mainly alluded to — very tastefully done for a picture book — one page with Jesus carrying the cross and then a grand scene with the heartbroken disciples, and the women in a corner with Jesus’ body, and the very walls of Jerusalem seeming to say, “It seemed the miracles had COME TO AN END.”

Then we have a spread from inside the empty tomb, graveclothes on a ledge, and Jesus outside in the light looking at a butterfly.

But God’s Son, Jesus, the Miracle Man,
had in store one last glorious miracle . . .

I haven’t seen another book about Jesus’ life quite like this one. The word that comes to mind is Majestic.

The Author’s Note at the back explains why John Hendrix wanted to tell this story. I liked hearing that he was fascinated as a child by the words of Jesus in red in his Bible.

You may have heard about the life of Jesus many times before, but my hope is to share the familiar story with you in a new way. Perhaps the best way to experience the Easter story is to momentarily forget about the trappings of religion around it and see the man at the center. In my experience, the story changes when we think of the people who experienced Jesus in person during the time he walked among us. Those people didn’t have a steepled church building or know anything about Christian theology. They simply met a man, some of them for only a brief moment, and they were changed forever.

Most of all, the author’s love for the Miracle Man shines through. This book is a wonderful way to tell children about Him.

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

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Review of Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans

Thursday, December 31st, 2015

searching_for_sunday_largeSearching for Sunday

Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church

by Rachel Held Evans

Nelson Books, 2015. 269 pages.
Starred Review

Lee Ann, a friend from church, told me about this book, which seems appropriate. Rachel Held Evans is young, but she cuts to the heart of what is wrong with church today. However, while she does point out some negatives, this book wouldn’t speak to me if that were all it is. She also articulates a vision of what church should be and what we should find from Christ-followers.

Her introductory chapter had me hooked. She says she’s often asked to talk about why young adults are leaving the church, and she can’t talk about all the nuances of what’s going on in every denomination.

But I can tell my own story, which studies suggest is an increasingly common one. I can talk about growing up evangelical, about doubting everything I believed about God, about loving, leaving, and longing for church, about searching for it and finding it in unexpected places. And I can share the stories of my friends and readers, people young and old whose comments, letters, and e-mails read like postcards from their own spiritual journeys, dispatches from America’s post-Christian frontier. I can’t provide the solutions church leaders are looking for, but I can articulate the questions that many in my generation are asking. I can translate some of their angst, some of their hope….

I told them we’re tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. Millennials want to be known by what we’re for, I said, not just what we’re against. We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff — biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice — but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask.

I explained that when our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender friends aren’t welcome at the table, then we don’t feel welcome either, and that not every young adult gets married or has children, so we need to stop building our churches around categories and start building them around people. And I told them that, contrary to popular belief, we can’t be won back with hipper worship bands, fancy coffee shops, or pastors who wear skinny jeans. We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained.

Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity, I said. We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus — the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.

This book does tell her story, and it presents a picture of what Christ-followers should be for, a loving and joyful message.

Rachel Held Evans has a way with words. I was reading a library copy, so I didn’t write in it, but I kept using post-it notes to mark sections to put into Sonderquotes.

She talks frankly about her own doubts and failings and her own journey. And she presents glimpses of the beauty that is so present in the church.

I think what makes this book so uplifting is that she’s honest, but she doesn’t focus on what we should be against. She focuses on what the church should be for.

And even still, the kingdom remains a mystery just beyond our grasp. It is here, and not yet, present and still to come. Consummation, whatever that means, awaits us. Until then, all we have are metaphors. All we have are almosts and not quites and wayside shrines. All we have are imperfect people in an imperfect world doing their best to produce outward signs of inward grace and stumbling all along the way.

All we have is this church — this lousy, screwed-up, glorious church — which, by God’s grace, is enough.

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Review of The Spirit of Saint Francis, inspiring words from Pope Francis

Friday, September 25th, 2015

spirit_of_saint_francis_largeThe Spirit of Saint Francis

Inspiring Words from Pope Francis

edited by Alicia von Stamwitz

Franciscan Media, Cincinnati, Ohio, 2015. 178 pages.

It seemed fitting that I finished reading this book during the Pope’s visit to Washington, D. C. I’d been reading it for a long time, reading a couple of inspirational quotations each morning.

I posted a few quotations on Sonderquotes. Here’s one example:

This is the culmination of the Gospel, it is the Good News par excellence: Jesus, who was crucified, is risen! This event is the basis of our faith and our hope. If Christ were not raised, Christianity would lose its very meaning; the whole mission of the Church would lose its impulse, for this is the point from which it first set out and continues to set out ever anew. The message which Christians bring to the world is this: Jesus, Love incarnate, died on the cross for our sins, but God the Father raised him and made him the Lord of life and death. In Jesus, love has triumphed over hatred, mercy over sinfulness, goodness over evil, truth over falsehood, life over death.

Here’s another:

The Gospel is the real antidote to spiritual destitution: wherever we go, we are called as Christians to proclaim the liberating news that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life. The Lord asks us to be joyous heralds of this message of mercy and hope! It is thrilling to experience the joy of spreading this good news, sharing the treasure entrusted to us, consoling broken hearts and offering hope to our brothers and sisters experiencing darkness. It means following and imitating Jesus, who sought out the poor and sinners as a shepherd lovingly seeks his lost sheep.

The headings the editor put the quotes under are “We Are Infinitely Loved,” “God Never Tires of Forgiving Us,” “Entrust Yourself to God’s Mercy,” “Dive into Prayer,” “Discover True Joy,” “Choose Simplicity and Humility,” “Do Not Forget the Poor!” “Preach the Gospel at All Times,” “Be Instruments of Peace and Pardon,” “Respect and Protect Creation.”

There’s something here for all Christians, not just Catholics. I recommend this book for a daily dose of encouragement and challenge.

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Review of At the End of the Ages……The Abolition of Hell, by Bob Evely

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015

at_the_end_of_the_ages_largeAt the End of the Ages…

The Abolition of Hell

by Bob Evely

1stBooks, 2003. 171 pages.
Starred Review

This is another book about Universalism. And Bob Evely summarizes the case beautifully that, at the end of the ages, God will save everyone.

This book is for those who believe the Bible is the Word of God, for people who don’t believe all will be saved because they don’t believe the Bible teaches this. Never mind what’s logical — they think universalism is contrary to Scriptures.

Bob Evely looks closely at the original Greek text of the Bible. He introduced me, in fact, to the Concordant Literal Version of the Bible. (I just interrupted writing this review to order my own copy.) Here’s how the Concordant Translation was developed:

Every single Greek word was closely examined. Each word was studied in every occurrence within the New Testament to determine the best English equivalent to be used. As much as was possible the meaning for each word was determined from the way the word was used within the New Testament, and not how other human authors may have used the word.

To preserve distinctions made by God, each individual Greek word was matched with a unique English equivalent. The same English word was not used for different Greek words, and differing English words were not used when a single Greek word was used.

I’d read in other books that the Greek word aion, which is often translated “eternal,” is more accurately translated as “eon” or “age” — often very long, but not, in fact, “eternal” or endless. The author’s reference to the Concordant Literal Version makes this very clear. We can see when aion and aionian is used in many places where “eternal” wouldn’t even make sense. (Most translators pick and choose where to use “eternal” when translating it.)

Here are a few examples from the Concordant Literal New Testament, which the author quotes:

Ephesians 2:7: “that, in the oncoming eons, He should be displaying the transcendent riches…”
Colossians 1:26: “the secret which has been concealed from the eons and from the generations, yet now was made manifest to His saints…”
Matthew 13:22: “…the worry of this eon and the seduction of riches are stifling the word…”
I Timothy 6:17: “Those who are rich in the current eon…”
John 14:16: “…and He will be giving you another consoler, that it, indeed, may be with you for the eon…”
Revelation 11:15: “The kingdom of this world became our Lord’s and his Christ’s, and He shall be reigning for the eons of the eons!”
Matthew 13:39: “the conclusion of the eon”
I Corinthians 10:11: “the consummations of the eons”

Now, the author adds plenty of commentary to these quotations. To me, he clearly points out that it’s inconsistent to translate aion as “eternal.”

He sums up:

While I have not attempted to show how many specific eons are mentioned in Scripture, I have desired to show that there are distinct, separate eons (or ages) that are mentioned in God’s Word. These “eons” are periods of time with a beginning and an end.

There was a time before these eons began. There will be a time when all of the eons will come to an end. We have seen at least three distinct eons referred to in God’s Word.

And he goes on to look at words translated “hell.” This section is also eye-opening. The author looks closely and in great detail to the words used in Scripture. At the end of this chapter, he concludes:

If an earthly ruler condemned even the vilest criminal to be kept alive just to be tortured forever, we would shudder at his cruelty. But we have inherited the current orthodox teachings about God that calmly attribute such activities to Him, while also teaching that He is a God of love.

I have come to see that the Bible does not teach this at all. Man has intervened and has placed his philosophies and pagan ideas within the Word of God. The modern English translations now perpetuate these man-made ideas, primarily because of a few words mistranslated and misinterpreted. We see a God of love, but a God who is also very harsh. Some say this is necessary because of God’s holiness and justice, but is God not able to use His love and power to bring about justice without losing a single sheep from the fold?

On a more positive note, he then looks at the “all” passages in the New Testament, as well as looking at I Corinthians 15:21-28, which talks about the “consummation.”

This is the grand conclusion of the ages. God has taken what mankind (and Satan) have intended for evil, and He has used it to achieve good. He has operated all in accord with the counsel of His will to achieve His will… that ALL mankind be saved. Some have recognized the greatness of God, and the work of the Saviour, in this lifetime, by faith. Others have taken longer, but now find salvation also. Every knee is now bowing in subjection before Him. Every person has found salvation. Every lost sheep has been found. The purpose of the eons has been achieved, and God is now All in all.

Another section of the book looks at the testimony of church history — the ultimate reconciliation of all things is by no means a new view — in fact, history shows us that this was the dominant view of the early church until Augustine.

I like this book, because as Bob Evely describes how he came to believe God will save everyone, his process pretty much mirrors mine. I, too, thought I couldn’t believe it because the Bible didn’t teach it. I was amazed and delighted to take another look and learn that maybe I’d been misled as to what the Bible actually says. And I was also surprised to learn of the deep historical tradition behind this view.

Here is the author’s conclusion, which mirrors how I feel about it:

Having been exposed to the things I have presented in this work, at the very least you should be hoping and praying that these things are true.

Not wanting to be led astray, this is where I began. I had been taught my entire life that there was a place of eternal torment. When I first heard of the possibility that this was wrong, I was highly skeptical. I did not want to be led into falsehood.

But as I journeyed down the path, studying and thinking of these things I had never been taught by a teacher or a pastor, I came first to a place where I did not know if these things were true, but I certainly hoped and prayed that they were!

How can we not feel this way? To think that there really is hope for those of our loved ones who died outside of Christ! Can God’s grace really be that big? Can His love really go that far? Is He really that wise that He could figure out a way to save all of mankind, despite rebellion and sin and wickedness and rejection?

This is a good place to start. The things you have read in this book have been largely suppressed, at least since the 5th century. When Universalism was declared by “The Church” to be heresy, many of the writings in support of this doctrine were destroyed. “The Church” was wrong, and today we live with the results of that error.

At least begin by hoping and praying that these things are true. Read and study the Word of God with this new possibility; this new perspective. Test this theory, this theology. Don’t believe me, but study and think for yourself.

I think as you go forward you will see the wonderful grace of God at every turn. It is a grace that is greater than anything mankind could ever have hoped for!

And this book is a wonderful resource for that search.

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Review of Did God Kill Jesus? by Tony Jones

Wednesday, August 26th, 2015

did_god_kill_jesus_largeDid God Kill Jesus?

Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution

by Tony Jones

HarperOne, 2015. 295 pages.
Starred Review

This book has a provocative title – at least for Christians. Jesus’ death is central to Christianity. What, actually, does it mean?

Like the author, I was brought up with the “payment” explanation of Jesus’ death – essentially that we are sinners and God hates sin – and Jesus, the sinless sacrifice, had to save us from God’s wrath. I’ve heard it preached that this is essentially the gospel. But I’ve also heard stories, explanations, and analogies of this view that get a little bit horrible if you think about them too hard.

It turns out that the reason for Jesus’ death preached at that middle school retreat. . . is not the only way that Christians have understood the death of Jesus. Instead, it’s one of about half a dozen theories that preachers and theologians have used over the past two thousand years to explain why Jesus died. This fact wasn’t advertised to me when I was growing up. Instead, I was taught that there was one and only one reason that Jesus died: because of my sin and God’s anger and disappointment with me. Maybe you were told the same thing. But this sentiment would have been confounding to a second- or third-century Christian. They had entirely different ways of understanding Jesus’ death, ways that we will explore in later chapters.

And behind each explanation of the crucifixion is an implied view of God. God is either strong or weak, in control or abdicating control, engaged or absent, gracious or vindictive. In the pages that follow, we will walk through the various views of Jesus’ death, and we will look at the God who stands behind the cross in each.

For myself, my reading in George MacDonald’s writings is what got me first to even see there might be another way of looking at the cross. This book goes into detail and examines the many different ways Christians have, over the centuries, looked at the death of Jesus. It turns out that the “payment” model wasn’t taught in the church until hundreds of years after Jesus’ death. And now we’re told believing this is the only way to be saved?

Here’s a section from the introductory chapter:

Even without the Bible, what kind of sense does it make to believe that God would create you and me, only to be disgusted by us and wrathful at our inevitable shortcomings? But add in the Bible, and you can really see how misaligned this interpretation of the crucifixion is. If we look in the Bible for evidence of this overwhelming disgust God has for us, it’s hard to come by. Sure, there’s the occasional verse that talks of God’s anger at particular sins or human behavior that God considers an abomination, but the overarching message of scripture is clear: God created us, God loves us, and God wants the best for us. In fact, the Bible is rife with stories of God going out of his way to set people on the right path – despite our failures, despite our sins. Indeed, the Apostle Paul assures us that God loved us “while we were still sinners.”

Before we study the Bible and even before we formulate and wrestle with all the doctrines from church history, we intuitively know something fundamental: the message of Jesus, God’s primary emissary, is that God loves us. That’s what Jesus came to preach and to enact in his miracles. He referred to God as his “Father” and his “Abba” – intimate terms based in relationship. Theirs was a close and loving connection. Jesus came to open that loving relationship between himself and the Father to all of us. This event, the crucifixion, on which all of cosmic history pivots, forever changed both us and God.

This also means there can be no separation between God and Jesus; we cannot set a wrathful and vengeful God in opposition to a loving and gracious Jesus. Jesus repeatedly taught that he and the Father are one, that the best way to know and understand the Father is by knowing and understanding the Son. And the main message of both Father and Son is that they love us and want to be united with us. Even before we come to understand what happened on the cross, we know that whatever explanation we discover cannot contradict the eternal relationship of love that binds the Father and the Son, that binds God and us.

This is a book on theology. The author does what he suggests here – looks at all the doctrines about the cross from church history.

I suspect that as we journey through the history of thought about Jesus’ crucifixion and look at the biblical accounts of that event, we will find a God who is not wrathful or disgusted. We won’t find a God who killed his son, nor demanded that his son be executed to pay a penalty. Instead, I suspect that we will find a God of love who goes even to the most extreme lengths to identify with the human experience and to build a bridge between the human and the divine. We’ll find a God who wants nothing more than to communicate his love to us.

I like his “smell test”:

Research shows that those who believe in a wrathful God are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders than those who believe in a loving, merciful God. Our beliefs really do have consequences, for they structure how we live.

I tend to be a pretty logical person. I like debates, reasoned arguments, and rigorous thinking. But after many years of searching and studying the ways of God, theology, and the Bible, I’ve concluded the following:

Bad theology begets ugly Christianity.

Good theology begets beautiful Christianity.

I call it the smell test. It’s an aesthetic argument. Like me, you’ve probably pulled that half-gallon of milk out of the back of the refrigerator, seen that the “best by” date is long past, and cautiously waved the open bottle under your nose. The result is either, “Smells fine to me!” or a sour stench strong enough to strip the bark off a tree.

That may seem an odd way to measure a faith system. We are used to matters being true or false, right or wrong, not beautiful or ugly, sweet or sour. Most prefer a more forensic approach: she who has the most logical doctrine wins. But, as we will see in the pages to come, many religious systems that are perfectly logical are nevertheless downright ugly. They’re bad for the world and bad for people. In other words, you can devise a system of doctrine that makes perfect sense within its own little self-inscribed world, but when you take it out into the broader marketplace of ideas, it spoils, like dropping a teaspoon of vinegar into a gallon of milk.

In the main section of the book, the author looks at historic interpretations of Jesus’ death within the church (and there are many). And he asks six questions of the various models:

What does this model say about God?

What does it say about Jesus?

What does this model say about the relationship between God and Jesus?

How does it make sense of violence?

What does it mean for us spiritually?

Where’s the love?

It turns out, these are some good questions to ask. This is a book that explores, and a book that thinks deeply.

I recommend this book for Christians who want to think about their faith. For those who think there is only one way to think about the crucifixion, perhaps it will open your eyes. And whether you end up agreeing with the author or not, it offers many perspectives and many things to consider. If nothing else, it will get you thinking about God’s love and grace.

If you’re not a Christian, but you feel you’ve been burned by Christianity or Christians who have taught you that God is angry with you – I also recommend this book. Perhaps you’ll be able to more clearly see God’s great love for you and God’s identification with humanity in Jesus. If nothing else, perhaps this more loving communication of Christianity will be healing.

Here’s a section from the last chapter:

Of the mystics in the history of the church, many like Brother Lawrence spent a great deal of time meditating on the crucifixion. In the climax of the great twenty-eight-day retreat called the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, the person on retreat meditates on Jesus being crucified, even having an imaginary conversation with Jesus as he hangs on the cross. While this may strike our modern sensibilities as gruesome or strange, now that we’ve come to see the humility of God on display in Jesus and the solidarity that God showed to humankind, we can understand how the cross can become a peaceful meditation, the moment of God’s ultimate presence with us.

The English mystic Julian of Norwich also meditated on the crucifixion. She dared not look up from the cross, she said, “For I knew that whilst I looked at the cross I was secure and safe.” When she looked at Jesus on the cross, she experienced God’s presence. It is ironic: looking into the eyes of a man being executed and feeling peace, safety, security, even tranquility. But it is possible because the crucifixion is God’s ultimate act of love.

We have something to learn from these old mystics. The crucifixion is a source of peace. It’s a magnet that draws us into the all-encompassing love of God. It’s a mirror that shows us the result of all our violent tendencies. It’s a spark that relights the flame of divinity within us. It’s a symbol of God’s victory over the forces that oppress us.

We look into the eyes of the dying savior knowing that in him, God performed the ultimate act of humility. In the abandonment of Jesus’ cry, God experienced the godforsakenness that every human feels. And a new bond was formed between God and humanity – a bond that is now cemented by God’s Holy Spirit.

I like this book. The author does show some drawbacks with the Payment Model of Jesus’ death, but I don’t think this book is primarily about showing drawbacks. It’s about shining a light on the cross, about thinking deeply about the cross and what it means about God, what it means about Jesus, what it means for us spiritually, and how it’s all about love.

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