Review of Lamb of the Free, by Andrew Remington Rillera

Lamb of the Free

Recovering the Varied Sacrificial Understandings of Jesus’s Death

by Andrew Remington Rillera

Cascade Books, 2024. 325 pages.
Review written May 31, 2024, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

I purchased – and actually read – this book because of strong recommendations from progressive Christians I follow on Twitter. I was not sorry. This book is amazing, giving an in-depth look at the sacrificial system set up in the Torah and how those sacrifices are used to talk about Jesus in the New Testament. Along the way, we learn that there’s nothing in the sacrificial system that’s penal – about punishment – and nothing that’s substitutionary – about taking something in place of someone else so they don’t have to. No, we see that Jesus’s death is shown to be participatory – Jesus identified with humanity in our curse to the point of death, and now we participate with Jesus in his death and resurrection.

That’s all in there, and it’s amazing and good. But let me warn my readers: This is an academic book written for professional theologians. I very much want to see a layperson’s summary of this book written. In fact, I’d love to take that project on myself — if I were sure I understood this book well enough.

There are long footnotes on almost every page and Scripture references noted throughout the text. The arguments of other scholars are noted and referred to. (And I had purchased one of the books he refutes. That one is also academic, so now I can put it away without trying to slog through it. Whew!) But this is a good thing! Before a layperson’s summary can be written, this book is needed to establish the firm biblical foundation of these ideas.

So although it was hard to wade through, it made my heart happy as I read. Something Andrew Rillera made clear is that the Bible does not teach that God is mad at us and requires a horrible death before God could ever forgive us.

Now, I’m a person who since childhood has read through the Bible over and over again. And, well, I’ve memorized the entire New Testament, Psalms, Proverbs, Isaiah, and half of Jeremiah (a chapter at a time, anyway). But when I read through Leviticus, let’s just say that often my mind wanders. I’m very aware that there are many different kinds of sacrifices, offered in many different ways.

So I just loved that this author explained the different types of sacrifices, how they relate to Jesus, and how New Testament writers apply them to Jesus. Although I’d still like a chart of the types of sacrifices, next time I read Leviticus, I’m going to have a better understanding of what I’m reading and how the various sacrifices are distinguished between one another.

Let me just give some things that struck me:

The sacrifices were not about death.

Although this one is hard for me to explain, the author’s pages of explanation show that sacrifice is about accessing the offering’s life, found in the blood.

The sacrifices were not about suffering.

The offering was to be killed quickly and humanely. And this is interesting:

This is significant because we can now see that when it comes to sacrificial understandings of Jesus’s death in the NT, these never occur in the context of Jesus’s sufferings and passion. Put another way: when Jesus’s sufferings and/or death qua death are the topic, then sacrificial metaphors are avoided.

Sacrifices were often about ritual purification. And often about remembrance. Or establishing a covenant. (I’d like to see a great big chart, honestly. But it’s all detailed here.)

Something I did grasp is that there were two types of sacrifices: Atoning and non-atoning sacrifices. The person offering the sacrifice never eats of an atoning sacrifice.

So when Jesus established the Lord’s Supper, he was relating his death to non-atoning sacrifices — the well-being sacrifices and the covenant-establishment sacrifices of the Passover. They are about remembering and about participating in.

But he also makes the point that some offenses were never intended to be dealt with by the sacrificial system.

Forgiveness has always been wider and deeper than the sacrificial system. God’s forgiveness was always available via extra-sacrificial means (e.g., Pss 32; 51; 103; Isa 38:17), so the prophets are confident that God will have mercy and forgive Israel and restore them just because that is the kind of God that God is and this is the kind of thing God can do (e.g., Isa 43:25; 44:22; 55:7; Jer 50:20; Mic 7:18-19; Hos 14:2-7; cf. Zeph 3:15).

I also love the part where the author explains the way the Romans used altars commemorating a conqueror’s mercy – “votive gifts” – and how that gives us insight into what Paul is saying in Romans 5 through 8.

Paul is essentially saying:

Look at Jesus! God is not your enemy! You are the ones at enmity with God. God is justifying you even though you are ungodly. God has put forth Jesus as a conciliatory votive gift of peace and reconciliation to demonstrate this. Be reconciled to God! God loves you! If God did not spare God’s own Son, then nothing can separate you from the love of God revealed and manifested in Jesus Christ. Jesus eternally stands in the presence of God (like votive gifts stand in temples) interceding for us all.

That’s all a really poor summary of what’s going on in this book. If you can handle academic writing at all, and to anyone who’s ever been to seminary, I highly, highly recommend this book. Of course, he goes into great detail about every type of sacrifice in the Torah and every mention of Jesus associated with sacrifice in the New Testament. Hebrews and 1 John do associate Jesus with atoning sacrifices, and do not mention the Lord’s Supper, and he looks at the implications of that, while also paying close attention to the more frequent mentions relating to non-atoning sacrifices.

Here’s a paragraph from the Introduction that helps us see where the book is going:

Jesus’s death is a participatory phenomenon; it is something all are called to share in experientially. The logic is not: Jesus died so we don’t have to. Rather it is: Jesus died so that we, together, can follow in his steps and die with him and like him, having full fellowship with his sufferings so that we might share in the likeness of his resurrection (e.g., Phil 3:10-11; Gal 2:20; 6:14; Rom 6:3-8; 1 Pet 2:21; Mark 8:34-35 with 10:38-39; 1 John 2:6; 3:16-18; etc.).

And here are some paragraphs from the end, summing up the journey he’s led us on:

Therefore, understanding the concepts of sacrifice and kipper properly is part of understanding the story of salvation the NT is telling. For instance, if we think sacrifice is all about punishment and retributive justice, then we will fundamentally misconstrue the sacrificial images applied to Jesus. This means we will misconstrue what “salvation” and “justice” mean because these terms will be informed and defined by alternative stories and frameworks. But getting the concepts and story right are crucial, not only for an individual Christian’s formation, but also our collective formation as part of a common and shared tapestry faithfully witnessing to the salvation of God in Jesus Christ as his body, the church….

So when we get the sacrificial concepts right by understanding the larger story of which they are a part, then we can find our place within that story, and as Paul says, become sharers and partakers of the body and blood of Jesus (1 Cor 10:16-17). And by so doing we become a living well-being sacrifice ourselves (Rom 12:1), narrating the death of Jesus in our bodies for the life and reconciliation of the world (2 Cor 4:10-12; 5:14-21).

So, let me challenge you. If you’re up for a deep dive into the details of the sacrificial system and what Jesus’s death means — you will be richly rewarded. I admit it will take some work and thought, but will yield a beautiful result.

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Review of The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary, by Robert Alter

The Book of Psalms

A Translation with Commentary

by Robert Alter

W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. 516 pages.
Review written November 8, 2021, from my own copy
Starred Review

I purchased this translation of Psalms after reading Robert Alter’s Notes on Biblical Translation, because I’m attempting to write my own book about Psalms.

This translation isn’t going after easy English reading. He’s going after the closest English version of what’s in the Hebrew text. The notes tell you about the many places where the actual Hebrew original isn’t clear, or where decisions had to be made about translating.

I don’t recommend this for casual inspirational reading of Psalms. But for those who want to study Scripture, there’s a wealth of material here to increase your understanding of what the Psalms contained in the original language.

I went through the book one Psalm at a time, reading the Psalm translation through, then reading through with the notes. There are extensive notes on each Psalm.

This book broadened my understanding of what we know about the original text of Psalms. Reading a new translation added beauty and insight to my experience of Psalms.

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Review of Have a Beautiful, Terrible Day! by Kate Bowler

Have a Beautiful, Terrible Day!

Daily Meditations for the Ups, Downs & In-Betweens

by Kate Bowler

Convergent, 2024. 204 pages.
Review written May 22, 2024, from my own copy purchased via
Starred Review

The title of this book perfectly encapsulates what’s so helpful about Kate Bowler’s writing. She is able to wish you a good day and uplift you, even while acknowledging that terrible things happen.

The content of the book is very like The Lives We Actually Have: 100 Blessings for Imperfect Days (with Jessica Ritchie). It’s a little bit oversized, and each day’s meditation takes up a spread. On the left half of the spread, we’ve got a Bible verse on the side and some thoughts about the situation where you might find yourself. On the right side, there’s a prayer for when you’re in that situation, followed by a short reflection prompt.

As an example, here’s the text on the left side of the first meditation, “when everything is out of control”:

There is something people say when you are in a lot of pain or trouble or life is out of control. They say: “All you can control is your reaction.” And, sure, that’s often good advice. We can try to reduce the scale of our problem-solving to a small, manageable step. But I don’t want you to have to skip that first true thing you are allowed to say: “I have lost control. This is happening to me.” This blessing is for when you need to say, “God, this is out of control. People keep telling me that I have control over this, but I really don’t. I need help.” Read or pray this meditation aloud if you need some divine rescue plan and some acknowledgment of that reality.

And the prayer on the facing page finishes up like this:

You are there, somewhere out there,
though I can hardly feel it.
Send an angel, send a fleet, send them now.

Like the other book, I found the meditations in this book encouraging and uplifting. They gave me words to pray that I might not have thought of on my own, but that did help bring me near to God and remember that God is listening.

This book has a section for Lent and a section for Advent, but the funny thing about that is that they miss a whole week of Lent! The 40 days of Lent on the calendar do not count Sundays. If you check a calendar, there are not a simple six weeks to Lent, because it starts on Wednesday and ends on Easter Sunday. There are, in fact, six Sundays during Lent — but that does not count Easter Sunday. The sixth Sunday of Lent is Palm Sunday. In this book, Palm Sunday is listed as the fifth Sunday of Lent, which doesn’t fit the calendar. I went back and checked — she only has 35 meditations during Lent, plus four Sundays set aside for rest. Missing the last week.

However, I just went back and did one of the earlier weeks during that week. The book is still a wonderful book of prayers, but that was a funny little glitch that the mathematician in me can’t bear to not point out. (Sorry!)

All that said, I love the way Kate Bowler models turning to God when things are difficult. Going through one of these prayers each day makes a wonderful morning routine.

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Review of Nearing a Far God, by Leslie Leyland Fields

Nearing a Far God

Praying the Psalms with Our Whole Selves

by Leslie Leyland Fields

NavPress, 2024. 195 pages.
Review written April 18, 2024, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

Okay, confession up front: I purchased this book in a bit of a panic after a writer friend alerted me that she had heard about its publication. You see, I am currently trying to find a publisher for my book, Praying with the Psalmists: Open your Heart in Prayer Using Patterns from Psalms — and the descriptions of the books sound remarkably similar. (While I’m doing blatant self-promotion, you can learn a bit more about my book on my Sonderjourneys blog.)

But friends talked me down. Of course our books aren’t going to be exactly the same, they will find different audiences, and by the time I find a publisher and get my book published, this book won’t be brand-new anymore. Instead of panicking, I shifted my thinking to realize it’s a wonderful thing that I’m not the only one encouraging Christians to use the Psalms in their own prayers. What’s more, now I have a comparable title for my Book Proposal that’s much closer than anything else I’ve found. Both of us want people to know he richness of emotion found in the Psalms, and are encouraging people to use Psalms as a way to get closer to God.

My one quibble is that I don’t like the subtitle, because I think the Psalms show God is not far off. But this book is all about drawing near to God through Psalms, and I feel like we are fellow workers in this endeavor, and I’m happy this message is getting out there!

The books are truly similar, but Psalms are personal, and each of us tells our own story along with talking about the types of Psalms. Leslie Fields tells about coming to Christ, studying in grad school, starting a family. I talk about when my world fell apart when my husband left me and all that followed as I put my life back together. But in any life, there are so many places where the Psalms show us how to cry out to God, and that’s what we have in common.

We both approach the topic by type of Psalm. Leslie Fields covers seven types of Psalms, looking at a few examples of the type covered by each chapter. My book is a little more in-depth, dividing all 150 Psalms into ten types, and presenting a Reading Plan so you can read all the Psalms in a twelve-week study, reading each type along with a matching chapter.

Both of us want our readers to soak in Psalms to get them into their hearts. As exercises after each chapter, Leslie Fields suggests writing out the Psalm you’re going over, with the act of writing helping the words sink in. She also has suggestions for embodying the Psalm by reading aloud with gestures. On my part, I’ve got a chapter about memorizing Scripture, having memorized the entire book of Psalms myself. But both of us are after the same thing — putting those words in the readers’ hearts beyond casual reading.

Her approach to praying through Psalms is a little simpler than mine — she suggests writing out the Psalm, but adding your reactions and prayers after each verse. My approach is to start off by talking about Hebrew poetry and parallelism and encouraging the reader to try that. And with each type of Psalm, I show that specific type’s form or key concepts. So you can write your own (small letter p) psalm, matching each different type.

So it’s a slightly different approach, but both of us are urging the reader to try it themselves. Read the Psalms, yes! Pray the Psalms, yes! Let the Psalms soak into your heart, yes! But also use them as a pattern of crying out to God when in trouble, of thanking God after deliverance, and of praising God’s glory.

And I can only be happy that this message is getting out!

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Review of Holy Hell, by Derek Ryan Kubilus

Holy Hell

A Case Against Eternal Damnation

by Derek Ryan Kubilus

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2024. 189 pages.
Review written March 27, 2024, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

For many years now, I’ve been collecting and reading books about Universalism. It started from reading the sermons of George MacDonald, not realizing he was a Universalist. Then I checked what he was saying against Scripture, especially noting the “all” verses, and became convinced that yes, the Bible teaches God will save everyone. And then I started reading modern writers on the same topic. It is not possible to overstate the amount of joy this change in views has given me. Every time I read another book showing why universal salvation is biblical, I give myself renewed permission to believe this wonderful, joyful teaching.

Holy Hell is the first time I found one of these books so close to publication date, though. I was actually researching Christian publishers when trying to find a home for my own book, Praying with the Psalmists, when this then-upcoming book caught my eye.

And this book, like so many others on Universalism, made my heart happy. Derek Kubilus’s approach is not horribly academic, but he does base his arguments on what the Bible says, including the information about misleading ways we translate the Greek text of the New Testament into English. I’d heard that in other books, but I do like the way he puts it, taking a pastoral tone. He’s a United Methodist pastor, which also made me happy, because since 2019, I’ve been a member of a United Methodist church.

This book has all the basics for a universalist book, explained in a way a layperson can understand. I think my favorite part was his treatment of the parable of the sheep and the goats, because that was still a niggling point I wondered about. He points out that a God who praises people for visiting other people in human prisons is not the same God who would put people into an unending prison. Here’s how he puts it:

Notice that the King does not say, “I was innocent and you came to prison to visit me.” He does not seem to care about the particular guilt or the innocence of the one who is incarcerated. He simply identifies himself with whoever might be in prison, saying, “I was in prison and you visited me.” As the last detail mentioned in a series, the fact that sheep go to visit prisoners carries the most emphasis in the text. Caring for those who are imprisoned actually epitomizes what it means to be a sheep. Yet, some will argue that we are to understand this passage to be saying that God imprisons souls in a torture dungeon and withdraws God’s presence from them for all eternity! Are we to believe that God is praising the sheep for their enduring presence with those who are in prison, and at the same time, God withdraws God’s own eternal presence from those whom God sends to prison? If that were true, then Christianity would simply be a terrible religion worthy of our rejection, because the Christian God would be the biggest hypocrite of all.

Another thing I liked about this book was his chapter about expanding our circles. Becoming a universalist has challenged me to be more loving and more inclusive to those I’d like to dismiss. Here’s a bit from that chapter:

Exclusion is easy. Walking around thinking that we are the special ones, that we are justified simply by virtue of who we are or what we believe, some identity or another, is comforting. Cutting more and more people out of that circle isn’t a problem as long as we stay nestled safely inside of it.

Expanding the circle, however, is a “hard teaching.” Expand it too far and we start to wonder if there’s anything special about us at all.

By that measure, universalism might just be the hardest teaching because it expands the circle all the way.

I marked many quotations in this book, so it’s going to be showing up on my Sonderquotes blog. Check out those to get more of an idea.

But if you’re wondering at all, if you think universalism might possibly be true, I highly recommend this book along with all the others on my Exploring Universalism page. This one is a great place to start!

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Review of Theologizin’ Bigger, by Trey Ferguson

Theologizin’ Bigger

Homilies on Living Freely and Loving Wholly

by Trey Ferguson

Lake Drive Books, 2024. 197 pages.
Review written March 5, 2024, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

This book made my heart happy.

I’ve been following Pastor Trey on Twitter (@PastorTrey05) for some time now. He tweets about theology that I’d already found liberating, such as why the theory of Penal Substitutionary Atonement gives a harmful and unworthy view of God — along with joyful alternatives.

He starts off in the first chapter talking about how God is bigger than we can fathom. So sticking with what we know can be limiting. Here’s how Pastor Trey puts it:

But what if these constructs of knowing God are capable of preventing us from experiencing God? What if these things that we don’t know are invitations of the Almighty to catch glimpses beyond the blurry fragments and snapshots that we have compiled in this library we now recognize as the Bible? What if this limited, finite collection of writings is not even supposed to contain the fullness of the word of God? What might that demand of the thoughts we think about the Divine?

And then I love the title of the second chapter: “The Bible Ain’t No Car Manual.” Here’s the paragraph under that title:

The Bible is not a car manual. You not gon’ be able to search in the back for just any topic and find the chapter and verse to answer every question under the sun. Doing theology requires critical thinking skills.

So, yes, in his book Pastor Trey shows us how to do theology and learn about the living, dynamic love of God. The idea of theologizin’ bigger is to think big thoughts about our great big loving God.

The book takes us lots of places, including talking about the White Man’s Religion and the ways we use religion for harm. But the overall message is overwhelmingly positive, encouraging us to think big and think loving in our relationships with God and other people.

I love the last chapter, “The Rehumanization Project,” where he talks about using our God-given imaginations:

To be made in the image of God is to possess the power of imagination.

Imagination is an essential part of our humanity. It is our imagination that built cities and civilizations. Our imagination brought us countless genres of music. People have imagined timeless creations into reality through the culinary, visual, and dramatic arts. Literature born of our God-given imaginations has endured for millennia, across time, space, language, and culture. Imagination brought us the Flintstones and Super Soakers. It brought us more sports than we care to name. Nothing worthwhile came without someone first imagining it.

And that ties into our salvation like this:

Salvation is an act of reclamation and restoration. When Jesus saves us, he helps us reclaim the bits of humanity we’ve lost. Jesus gives us the ability to imagine good things and the power to realize them here and now. Community without exploitation. A sense of wealth that doesn’t demand scarcity. A love that doesn’t bleed us dry, but makes us whole. If only we imagine them, we can experience all these things. That’s what we were made to do. That’s what it means to be human.

If Jesus has the power to save, then we have the power to imagine again. We have the ability to theologize bigger. That is the image of God in us.

Reading a chapter a day of this book gave me a nice shot of inspiration and joy. I hope Pastor Trey will write many more books in the future.

Pastor Trey guarantees on his website that if you open up his book, you’ll find something worth talking about. That promise was fulfilled for this reader.

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Review of No Cure for Being Human, by Kate Bowler

No Cure for Being Human

(And Other Truths I Need to Hear)

by Kate Bowler

Random House, 2021. 202 pages.
Review written January 16, 2024, from my own copy, purchased via
Starred Review

I ordered this book because of how much I loved the author’s book of meditations, The Lives We Actually Have, and that after reading it, I realized she was the author of Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved. Since I loved that book, I clearly needed to read this follow-up.

This book is a memoir about the author getting experimental treatment for her terminal cancer at thirty-five years old. Spoiler alert: She survives. But many other people in the same experimental trials did not. And the outcome was by no means certain when she lived it. In fact, she was told she had a 14% chance of survival.

Kate Bowler is a professor who’s studied the prosperity gospel in America. And she found as she was going through this that she had strong feelings about self-help books promising “Your Best Life Now” and bucket lists and other mantras that rang hollow when she was facing high chances of dying before she saw her small son grow up.

This book is her story of that journey. I love her short chart at the back of “Clichés we Hear and Truths We Need.” A couple of examples:

Carpe diem! –> I mean, yes, unless you need a nap.

Let go and let God. –> God loves you, but won’t do your taxes.

Make every minute count. –> Life is unpredictable. You’re a person, not a certified accountant.

You are invincible. –> There’s no cure for being human.

I hope that gives you the idea what you’ll find here: No trite formulas for happiness in hard times. But at the same time, encouragement that being human and being alive is a good thing.

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Review of Executing God, by Sharon L. Baker

Executing God

Rethinking Everything You’ve Been Taught about Salvation and the Cross

by Sharon L. Baker

Westminster John Knox Press, 2013. 205 pages.
Review written December 28, 2023, from my own copy.
Starred Review
2023 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 Christian Nonfiction

After reading Sharon L. Baker’s book Razing Hell that demonstrates the Bible’s teachings about hell aren’t necessarily what we’ve been taught, I was ready to read what she has to say about the cross and the atonement.

This book reminded me of Tony Jones’ book, Did God Kill Jesus?, since both books look at historical theories of the atonement and show us why those that have been commonly taught worship a violent God instead of a loving, restoring God. Sharon L. Baker is a university professor, so her book is a little more academic, but because of that gives us a thorough and detailed case for taking a fresh look at the cross of Christ.

She makes the case right at the beginning that if you believe God orchestrated the violence done to Jesus, you will tend to not have a problem with violence yourself. And beyond that, the story told that way isn’t attractive to unbelievers. If God can only forgive us when paid off by violent death of his innocent Son, how is that even forgiveness?

But don’t weigh her argument from my summary. The author is meticulous in her approach, spending chapters on the historic ways Christians have looked at the atonement. You might be surprised that most of the theories churches teach today were developed hundreds of years after Christ’s death, including the Satisfaction Theory developed in medieval times to appeal to people living under feudal systems. Sharon Baker looks at the meaning of justice, forgiveness, and sacrifice, and how they relate to the cross.

Now, I was easily swayed, since I’ve already read similar books on this topic including Did God Kill Jesus?, by Tony Jones, A More Christlike God, by Bradley Jersak, Nothing But the Blood of Jesus, by J. D. Myers, and Creation and the Cross, by Elizabeth A. Johnson. Where this book shone for me was in the later chapters, where she pulls the ideas together and talks about her view of God’s atonement, forgiveness, and restorative justice. It was especially meaningful to me to finish reading the book on Christmas Day, because her view is that Christ’s atonement is very much wrapped up in the life and incarnation of Jesus.

Here’s a paragraph about the meaning of the Incarnation:

Because of the incarnation, something tangible happens on a cosmic level to change our relationship with God and with each other. In the words of Cyril of Alexandria, “God made human flesh his own.” Or, in other words, regardless of the way we might think of the divinity of Jesus, God descended into the human condition by becoming one of us with a human body and mind. But there’s a bit more to it. In Jesus, two natures were united – human and divine. And since the son has taken on humanness, the two natures are united in Jesus. So he took what belonged to him – the life of God – and gave it to us. And he also took to himself what belonged to us – humanity – and healed it, restored it, and transformed it into what God created us to be. What a sweet gift. Jesus participated in humanity and in the process healed and reconciled it so that humanity could participate in God. In other words, he lifted human nature into the Godhead (Eph. 2:6). We could say that God descended to us in our humanity so we could then ascend to the life of God.

I also loved her discussion of forgiveness and how God has never required payment to forgive. Here’s a bit of that:

If we look at the life and teachings of Jesus we see a vastly different image of God. We see a God of love and peace, who freely forgives sin without first balancing the cosmic accounts. As the fullest revelation of God, Jesus never demands retribution. He never talks about his offended honor. He forgives and heals and saves unconditionally. He is the Prince of Peace who reveals to us the true nature of God and tells us so when he says, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

She talks about how the violence of the cross came from humans, not from God:

What would have happened if Jesus, in terrible pain on the cross, had commanded an army of angels to come and wipe out his persecutors? What would have happened if Jesus had bought into the violent response of Peter when the Romans came to arrest him? Violence, bloodshed, death, maybe even war, right? But instead, Jesus responded in the opposite way. He commanded Peter to put away his sword and he spoke words of forgiveness from the cross. In so doing, he broke the cycle of violence and reconciled us to God so that we could spend an eternity celebrating and enjoying our restored relationship with a God who loves us. Which brings God more glory – retribution or restoration? I think the answer is obvious.

And more about restorative justice:

Actually, we might say that sin condemned and punished through retribution is sin condemned without hope for redemption. But sin exposed through righteousness, with the intent to restore the sinner to God, is grounded in the hope of salvation. So instead of saying that God inflicted the pain of the cross on Jesus as a penalty for our sin, we can say that the horrific nature of the cross exposed and condemned the gravity of our sin. After all, human beings are the ones who put Jesus to death, not God.

And remember, Jesus never said anything about coming to receive punishment for sin, but he said quite a bit about forgiving it. The righteousness of God in Jesus transcended the retributive aspects of the law and brought about our forgiveness — think about Jesus’ prayer for our forgiveness from the cross. In this manner, Jesus gave us his life and revealed to us the law of love that restores us to God and to each other. The Bible tells us that no greater love exists than this (John 15:13).

This part resonated when I was reading it at Christmastime:

Reconciliation through forgiveness brings peace between formerly conflicting parties – in this case, God and humanity. The book of Ephesians tells us that Jesus proclaimed peace to those of us who were far from God and to those who were nearer to God (2:15-20). And Jesus proclaimed this peace by something that speaks louder than words – by his actions. Even though he suffered because of our sinful actions in putting him to death, Jesus sought to forgive and to reconcile us to God, bringing peace, love, and restoration not only between God and humans but among those in conflict with each other – Jews, Gentile, male, female, slave, and free. Peace all the way around! But isn’t that what the angels declared at the birth of Jesus – peace on earth, goodwill to all people?

This is a point I’ve often read in George MacDonald’s writings:

Jesus did not die in order to win God’s love for us, but to win us over with God’s love. God’s love went to the limit for us, dove into the depths of the human condition, suffered the consequences of our sin by dying a terrible death as an innocent man. And in the midst of that suffering love, Jesus revealed the greatest love of all – forgiving his enemies and praying to God to do the same. Through the incarnation, God took on human flesh and gave human flesh the life of God.

Here’s how she finishes up the main text of the book (with lots of notes and an index to come – she’s an academic):

It takes one to forgive and two to reconcile. Although God freely forgives all of us without condition, we can choose to enter fully into the equation in order for reconciliation with God to happen. And this reconciliation takes place as we turn back to God. God lifts us up into the life of God and we participate joyfully in the new life we have in Christ. We can interpret the cross of Jesus as at-one-ment that deconstructs notions of a violent God bent on retributive justice. We see that the justice of God is love and that love forgives, transforms, and seeks to create new and harmonious relationships. Through the forgiveness of God, a way is opened up for the transformation of all humanity (all creation, to be exact). Through the cross of Jesus, we are forgiven without condition, accepted as we are. Through repentance we are reconciled with God and transformed into those who live in the power of divine love.

Divine justice, therefore, is the act of loving and forgiving, a bottomless, endless, profoundly absurd forgiveness that reaches out in love to all humankind. Our response-ability is to receive it, to enter into the forgiveness of God, reconciled and restored. If, that is, we have eyes to see and ears to hear:

Yahweh is tender and compassionate,
slow to anger, most loving;
his indignation does not last for ever,
his resentment exists a short time only;
he never treats us, never punishes us,
as our guilt and our sins deserve.
— Ps. 103:8-10 Jerusalem Bible

If, like me, you find that vision of God’s restorative justice beautiful, but if maybe you aren’t sure how to fit that picture with what you’ve been taught about the Bible – in that case, I highly recommend this book.

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Review of Counting the Cost, by Jill Duggar

Counting the Cost

by Jill Duggar
with Derick Dillard
and Craig Borlase
read by Jill Duggar

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2023. 7 hours, 7 minutes.
Review written December 15, 2023, from a library eaudiobook.
Starred Review

I have never watched one episode of the shows about the Duggar family. I am the third child from a family of thirteen children, and I knew it would be painful to me to watch a big family’s lifestyle glorified like that. I knew that what cameras saw would not be the same as what day-to-day life is really like.

But when I heard about Amazon Prime’s “Shiny Happy People” documentary series, I dropped everything and watched the series. It took me five blog posts on my Sonderjourneys blog in my “Shiny Happy Childhood” series to process what I saw in that series.

Based on what I saw in the documentaries (which included interviews with Jill), I put this audiobook on hold as soon as I heard about it. This is the story of Jill Duggar, growing up in her filming family and highly involved in the cult that IBLP ended up being. IBLP stands for Institute in Basic Life Principles, and was founded by Bill Gothard, who began by going around the country doing seminars — seminars I attended as a child several times.

This book is Jill’s personal story. I admire the woman she’s grown to be, learning to set boundaries, make her own decisions, protect her own privacy, and stand up for herself in healthy ways.

My reaction to this book will be more about me than it is about her. It’s not often – not often at all – that I get to read a “mirror” book, a book I see myself in. Jill was the fourth child in a big family, taking care of younger siblings from a young age. I was the third child in my big family, and yes, I was changing diapers and tending babies from eight years old on. She was in a conservative Christian family, heavily influenced by Bill Gothard’s teachings. I was in a conservative Christian family, heavily influenced by Bill Gothard’s teachings, but before he got quite so extreme.

First, after listening to this book, I’m so thankful that my parents didn’t ever get to the “Advanced Training Institute” level of following Bill Gothard. Girls were allowed to wear pants in my house, we listened to Christian rock music, attended a private Christian school, and went to a Christian university. I think there was some hope I’d find a nice Christian guy to marry at that Christian college, like my mother had done, and my older sister did, too, and — oh, wait a second, I did meet my ex-husband at that Christian college, though I was much slower than they were, and we didn’t get married until after I finished grad school, which it sounds like wouldn’t have met Bill Gothard’s approval.

My parents did homeschool for a number of years — but they started after I was already in college. I liked the idea of homeschooling in theory — but in practice, I knew that school had been my lifeline. Making friends and learning how “normal people” lived was vital to my growing up years. And when I had kids of my own, we sent them to public school.

I heard of Bill Gothard’s “umbrella of authority” and probably believed it was true, but it wasn’t hammered into me the way it was for Jill. I wasn’t afraid I was opening myself up to Satanic destruction if I displeased my father. (And I was a rule-follower anyway, so how would I have displeased him?) But one part of the teaching as she related it surprised me. I was taught that a girl goes from under her father’s authority to under her husband’s authority. Marriage is all about “Leave and Cleave,” or so I was taught. I thought it was part of Bill Gothard’s teaching, but Jill reported that she was told she was under her father’s authority as long as he lives, and her husband is under his authority, too. So she had an especially difficult time establishing her own home as an adult, with boundaries from television cameras, making decisions against her father’s wishes.

It was interesting to me, though, that my areas of pain from my upbringing were completely different from hers. Now, it sounds like doing the show gave their family more resources to meet the needs of that many children. However, for me, besides having to do without some physical things at times, I felt starved for attention, easily invisible, not really known by my parents. The focus and attention in our family always went most to the newest baby, and the older kids got easily overlooked. I didn’t get the impression Jill felt a lack there.

I do agree with the Duggars that children are a blessing. But I also believe they are people who need to be nurtured. And if you have so many children you don’t have the physical or emotional resources to nurture them all, I think you’re being irresponsible with precious lives.

Now this is a discussion every couple should have on their own. I try not to judge big families, because children are indeed a blessing, after all. But neither should they judge me for having two kids, six and a half years apart, so I had the joy of showering individual attention on each child. Bill Gothard claims to know what’s best for every family — and I believe that’s presumptuous and wrong.

But the topic that hit the hardest when I watched the “Shiny Happy People” documentary (pun intended) was spanking. One whole blog post in my processing was about it. As an adult, I am very much opposed to using violence to control your children. Jill didn’t even mention spanking as an issue, though I know it’s a big part of Bill Gothard’s teaching, and I think there was a clip of her mother describing “blanket training” in the documentary. (Shudder.)

So Jill didn’t include the things I think of as issues from this background. But a lot of her issues sprang from having her growing-up years always on camera. And then being manipulated as an adult to continue to let the filming control her life, without getting paid for it.

I appreciated that Jill finished her book with the things she loves and admires about her parents. She points out that loving someone does not mean you have to be blind to their faults.

I wish Jill and Dereck continued success as they grow and heal and establish boundaries and nurture their own family, following Jesus in the ways he leads them, rather than in the strict set of rules someone else makes up for them. This book made my heart go out to a sister.

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Review of Luke: Jesus and the Outsiders, Outcasts, and Outlaws, by Alan Hamilton


Jesus and the Outsiders, Outcasts, and Outlaws

by Alan Hamilton

Abingdon Press, 2022. 155 pages.
Review written April 5, 2023, from my own copy.
Starred Review

My church went through this book in our small groups (including the one I co-lead) as an all-church Lenten study. There are six chapters, one for each week of Lent, and there is a leader’s guide and videos to go along with it, as well as the sermons from our pastors on the same topics.

I’ve grown up in church and know the Bible well, so it’s always a challenge to set aside what I think I already know and gain new insights. That wasn’t a problem at all with this book. Although I think I’m very familiar with the book of Luke, I had never noticed the theme that Alan Hamilton brings out again and again — of Jesus lifting up the lowly.

Indeed, there’s a chapter on Jesus’ interactions with women, and I’d never noticed how very much Luke includes women in his gospel — much more than the other gospel writers.

Since there are 24 chapters of Luke, but only 6 weeks of Lent, the study is only loosely chronological. We start with a firm foundation of Jesus seeing and paying attention to outsiders, outcasts, and outlaws all through the book before traveling with Jesus to Jerusalem, looking at his final week, and then covering the crucifixion.

Even with the crucifixion, Adam Hamilton points out that the words on the cross that Luke chose to report fit with his theme of lifting up the lowly. This is where we read about Jesus’ forgiveness, his promise to the thief, and ultimately committing himself into his Father’s hands.

This paragraph is from the first chapter, looking at the Mary’s Magnificat:

It is on the lips of Mary that Luke lays out the theme of his Gospel, the theme of this book: God looks with favor on those of low status. God brings down the powerful from their thrones. God lifts up the lowly. God chooses the people others think are washed up or have no value. God values and uses those who have been pushed down, oppressed, or disdained. This one line captures Luke’s theme.

And here’s a paragraph from the chapter about Jesus’ crucifixion:

Regardless of what Luke was seeking to convey about Jesus’s death, he clearly sees this as the climax of the story he has been telling. Here, too, Jesus is lifting up the lowly. In Jesus’s death, we see his obedience to God (“not my will but thy will be done”), his innocent suffering, and, once again, his ministry with and for the outsiders, outcasts, and outlaws. We see his mercy and grace as he prays for his Father to forgive even those who tortured him. We see him reaching out to “seek and save the lost,” even from the cross. We see him as a King suffering for his people — a picture of selfless love. And we see Jesus absorbing evil, hate, sin, and death. As we will see in the postscript, Jesus ultimately triumphs over those things, and in the process brings salvation to the world.

Studying along with this book gave me a whole new appreciation for the gospel of Luke.

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