Archive for the ‘Christian’ Category

Review of Tattoos on the Heart, by Gregory Boyle

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

Tattoos on the Heart

The Power of Boundless Compassion

by Gregory Boyle
read by the author

HighBridge Audio, 2010. 7 ½ hours on 6 CDs.
Starred Review

I put this audiobook on hold after my sister Becky told me that her daughter’s college graduation had the best graduation speaker she’d ever heard – he even got a standing ovation. That was enough of a recommendation for me. I was not at all disappointed when I started listening.

I got the audiobook because while I’m on the Newbery committee, that’s the best way for me to get books read that are written for adults. And with all the Spanish words used in this book, it was nice to hear the author read it. He doesn’t use a lot of variety in voices, but that’s okay – it works with this book. But I ended up checking out the print version in order to pull out quotes for Sonderquotes – I kept getting blown away by his words and I wanted to remember them.

Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, is the founder of Homeboy Industries, an organization that gives jobs to gang members and helps them get out of gangs and removes their tattoos. He lives in downtown Los Angeles, and has since the 1980s (when I lived in downtown Los Angeles for a few years) – and knows and loves gang members. He learns their names and knows them as people – and that makes a powerful difference.

The book is mostly stories, and they touch your heart. Something about seeing, through Father Boyle, that God sees and cares about gang members – helps me understand with my heart that God sees and cares about me. And not only does God care about me, He delights in me. Gregory Boyle shows that it’s possible to not only tolerate kids who are gang members – but even to see that they are delightful. Wow.

Here’s what Gregory Boyle says at the end of the Introduction:

In finding a home for these stories in this modest effort, I hope, likewise, to tattoo those mentioned here on our collective heart. Though this book does not concern itself with solving the gang problem, it does aspire to broaden the parameters of our kinship. It hopes not only to put a human face on the gang member, but to recognize our own wounds in the broken lives and daunting struggles of the men and women in these parables.

Our common human hospitality longs to find room for those who are left out. It’s just who we are if allowed to foster something different, something more greatly resembling what God had in mind. Perhaps, together, we can teach each other how to bear the beams of love, persons becoming persons, right before our eyes. Returned to ourselves.

He achieves these goals in this book. He does such a good job of putting a human face on the gang member for me – that it was unfortunate timing that I was listening to this audiobook at the same time the president called members of MS-13 “animals.” The contrast was huge. (Gregory Boyle, by the way, doesn’t name any of the gangs he works with, so as to not give the gangs that dignity. The people, however, he lavishes with dignity.)

The beauty of this book is watching Father Boyle treat gang members as delightful human beings. It’s obviously not easy, and comes with a lot of pain. At the time of writing the book, he had buried more than 170 people he cared about because of gang violence. Many of the stories he tells end with the tragic too-soon death of the subject of the story.

And the things he pulls out touch your heart. He talks about the “no matter whatness” of God’s love and God knowing us by name. You’ll see lives changed because someone showed compassion on an outcast – and maybe that will change your life, too.

Look for more quotes on Sonderquotes. I highly recommend this book.

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

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Review of Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden

Wednesday, May 9th, 2018

Paul Among the People

The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time

by Sarah Ruden

Pantheon Books, 2010. 214 pages.

I checked out this book because I’d read and loved the author’s book The Face of Water (written later) where she takes a fresh look at the translation of several biblical passages.

In this book, the author uses her knowledge of Graeco-Roman literature and culture to take a fresh look at Paul and give us the cultural context of his writings.

Now, I didn’t find this book nearly as pleasant as The Face of Water. The fact is that the context of Paul’s writings was rather horrible. Slaves were not really considered people. Homosexuality was commonplace – but the only one despised was the passive partner. Paul spoke against those who preyed on others, the people his culture thought were real “man’s men.” He was speaking against oppression, and not really from anything like the same context from which we look at those things.

But my summary doesn’t do this work justice. It opened my eyes – though not always in ways I wanted them opened. She examines Paul and pleasure, Paul and homosexuality, Paul and women, Paul and the state, and Paul and slavery. In the context of his own culture, Paul’s words take on a whole new aspect. He’s much less harsh – in fact, he’s speaking up against a harsh culture.

But I think my favorite chapter was the final one, “Love Just Is: Paul on the Foundation of the New Community,” where she looks at I Corinthians 13, “the Love Chapter.” There were plenty of insights I’d had no idea about (how the “clanging cymbal” relates to the cult of Cybele for example). I especially liked finding out that the list of qualities of love that begins in verse 4 (“Love is patient; love is kind….”) are all verbs.

It’s more or less a necessity of our language that the standard translations here contain a lot of adjectives. The Greek does not contain a single one. Instead we have a mass of verbs, things love does and doesn’t do. This is the ultimate authority for the saying “Love is a verb.” . . .

So manically verb-centered is the passage that Paul takes two adjectives and creates a one-word verb from each (neither verb being attested previously in Greek); and he creates yet another verb, in Greek a one-word metaphor….

If we take the meaning from the form, we could say that he is preaching, “You know the right ways to feel? Turn those feelings into acts and perform those acts, ceaselessly. You know the wrong ways to feel? Don’t, ever, perform the acts that spring from them.”

Pick up this book if you’d like a fresh look at the backdrop the Apostle Paul wrote from.

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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 Pastrix, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Sunday, April 1st, 2018


The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint

by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Jericho Books, 2013. 206 pages.
Starred Review

A big thank-you to my friends Charles and Laura who gave me this book for Christmas after convincing me to read Nadia Bolz-Weber’s next book, Accidental Saints, which was a 2017 Sonderbooks Stand-out. I already had this book checked out from the library, but it was nice to have my own copy to keep and to mark the good parts.

The book is autobiographical, telling how the author went from being an alcoholic on the road to self-destruction to become a Lutheran pastor, or pastrix, as some call her to try to insult her. She has adopted and redefined the term to mean a female ecclesiastical superhero.

She first felt called to be a pastor when she was asked to give the eulogy when a friend hung himself. She looked around and realized this:

These were my people. Giving PJ’s eulogy, I realized that perhaps I was supposed to be their pastor.

It’s not that I felt pious and nurturing. It’s that there, in that underground room filled with the smell of stale beer and bad jokes, I looked around and saw more pain and questions and loss than anyone, including myself, knew what to do with. And I saw God. God, right there with the comics standing along the wall with crossed arms, as if their snarky remarks to each other would keep those embarrassing emotions away. God, right there with the woman climbing down the stage stairs after sharing a little too much about PJ being a “hot date.” God, among the cynics and alcoholics and queers.

I am not the only one who sees the underside and God at the same time. There are lots of us, and we are at home in the biblical stories of antiheroes and people who don’t get it; beloved prostitutes and rough fishermen. How different from that cast of characters could a manic-depressive alcoholic comic be? It was here in the midst of my own community of underside dwellers that I couldn’t help but begin to see the Gospel, the life-changing reality that God is not far off, but here among the brokenness of our lives. And having seen it, I couldn’t help but point it out. For reasons I’ll never quite understand, I realized that I had been called to proclaim the Gospel from the place where I am, and proclaim where I am from the Gospel.

What had started in early sobriety as a reluctant willingness to start praying again had led to my returning to Christianity, and now had led to something even more preposterous: I was called to be a pastor to my people.

This book is about that journey, and is filled with many stories along the way of people touched by God’s grace – including herself (not in a prideful way – when she really needed it).

There’s lovely stuff here, as well as convicting stuff. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a gracious person because she doesn’t claim to have it all together, to be doing everything right, or to have the only right way to God. Her writing helps me see God’s amazing grace manifested in and displayed toward all of God’s children in all their messy glory.

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Review of A Message of Hope from the Angels, by Lorna Byrne

Saturday, March 17th, 2018

A Message of Hope from the Angels

by Lorna Byrne

Atria, 2012. 183 pages.
Starred Review

After I read Lorna Byrne’s biography, Angels in My Hair, about how she has been able to see angels all her life, I liked it so much, I ordered two more of her books from Amazon.

This one isn’t autobiographical, but it passes on to the reader things angels have told her. And yes, this book is especially about Hope.

Here’s a section from the first chapter:

Hope brings a community together to make things better, and when it does, I see people get brighter, shine more, and then they can go on to achieve greater things. People who believe things can be changed for the better are beacons of light for us – and need to be supported.

Hope can be given to others. It gives strength and courage, and then hope grows. We all have a part to play in growing hope. In the past, people looked to leaders of churches, communities, businesses, countries to provide a vision of hope for the future, but now many of our leaders are struggling. They are failing to see all the ways in which we can make our world a better place to live.

The angels have told me so much about hope and how much we have to be hopeful about, and have showed me so many different ways in which they help to give us hope.

When I reread that section, I thought, “No wonder this book uplifted me so much!” She covers many different things in this book, but the overall message is that we are loved unconditionally, and there are angels all around us, ready to help.

I’ll quote from a few sections that especially struck me.

One section I liked was where she talked about teacher angels.

Sometimes, on a sunny day, walking through the grounds of the university near where I live, I see students sitting on stone seats opposite the library or sitting on the grass studying, and I see teacher angels with some of them.

Teacher angels always seem to be holding something – a symbol of learning that is relevant to whatever they are teaching. Sometimes they are holding a book or a pointer or a board with writing on it with the words constantly changing. I once saw a bricklayer’s apprentice with a teacher angel who had a trowel in his hand. Teacher angels exhibit the mannerisms we associate with teachers.

I have often seen a teacher angel standing in front of a student, book in hand. The book would look similar to the one the student was working with and seem to be open at the same page. Occasionally I see the teacher angel turn to another page and I smile, knowing that the teacher angel is having difficulty with his student, who is finding it hard to make progress. I have seen teacher angels gently stretch out their hands and touch a student gently on the head with one finger, trying to get the student’s attention. Most of the time this seems to work, but sometimes not. Teacher angels never give up, though, and never lose their patience. I have seen teacher angels blowing on a student’s book and making the page turn, or causing a strong breeze, which blows some of the student’s books and pens onto the ground. That is the teacher angel trying to bring the student’s attention to a particular page or subject, or to simply stop them daydreaming. Teacher angels work very hard to get their students’ attention.

I am always amazed at how few people have teacher angels. After all, all they have to do is ask their guardian angel for help with whatever they are learning and their guardian angel will invite a teacher angel in. In the college I know best, only about one student in ten has a teacher angel with them.

This bit encouraged me in thinking about my many Empty Nester friends:

You can also ask for a teacher angel to help someone else. Just ask your guardian angel for a teacher angel to help the person. Many parents have told me that they have asked for a teacher angel to help their children with their studying – this is so much better than fretting and worrying.

Another special angel she talks about is the Angel of Strength:

When you are exhausted or feeling physically challenged by a task, you can call on the Angel of Strength and ask for his help. He is one angel, but he seems to be able to help many people at the same time. He won’t stay with you, but will come and help you for that particular task where strength is needed.

She concludes the chapter about the various types of help she’s seen angels give with this reflection:

Angels are such a sign of hope. There is always an angel that can help us, regardless of what is going on in our lives. All we have to do is ask. You don’t need to know what angel to ask for; just ask, and your guardian angel will call in the help you need. Isn’t it wonderful to know that there is such an abundance of help there? To me it seems so strange, and sad, that so many people don’t make use of this gift.

I loved the chapter about prayer angels. Here are some sections from it:

I talk and ask the angels to help; I ask the angels to intercede, but I don’t pray to them. I pray only to God. Prayer is direct communication with God.

No one ever prays alone. When you pray to God, there is a multitude of angels of prayer there, praying with you, regardless of your religious faith or how you are behaving. They are there enhancing your prayer, interceding on your behalf and imploring God to grant your prayer. Every time you pray, even if it is only one word, the angels of prayer are like a never-ending stream flowing at tremendous speed to Heaven with your prayers….

I know it’s hard to believe that I see hundreds of thousands of angels of prayer flowing like a river toward Heaven, bringing a person’s prayers and presenting them at the throne of God. But that is what I am shown; it’s as if angels of prayer bring every bit of the prayer – every syllable that is prayed for – up to Heaven. When the person stops praying, the flow stops, but as soon as the person starts to pray again, the stream of angels of prayer resumes.

I loved this part, too:

Every time I go into a church, mosque, synagogue, or temple – or any other holy place – I see hundreds of angels praying, quite aside and separate from any angel of prayer. It doesn’t matter what religion the place belongs to – if any. Whether it’s a building or a space outside, even if the place is no longer being used for prayer, it is still a holy place, and there will be angels there, praying to God.

She talks about a lot of things I’d certainly never thought about this way, but that actually make sense put this way, and encourage me to have confirmation that such things exist and someone has seen them. The grace of healing is one of these.

Each and every one of us has the grace of healing within us – and it is a wonderful gift God has given us. I see it at work every day. It’s beautiful when I see a mother or father holding a child in their arms and comforting them. The child might have a physical hurt, like a scratched knee, or an emotional hurt like sadness, but the parent, usually unbeknown to himself or herself, is pouring out the grace of healing. It is wonderful to see the grace of healing flow from the parent to the child and to see the child stop crying and go back to playing happily.

There was a whole chapter about angels encouraging us to enjoy life.

I’ve said elsewhere that I hate the question, “What is my destiny?” It seems to imply that life is about one or a few big tasks or goals. My understanding from God and the angels is that each and every one of our destinies is to live life to the fullest. This means living every minute of every day to the fullest and trying to be aware and conscious of every moment and, where possible, to enjoy them all. Your life is today. It’s not yesterday or tomorrow. It’s now. This moment….

In seeing beauty around you, you will appreciate life more, and recognize more the beauty that is within yourself. Appreciating beauty helps you to slow down, and the more beauty you notice, the more beauty you will see. Much of the time we just don’t notice what is around us. We are lost in our thoughts or fail to give any importance or value to the idea of seeing beauty.

Yet another beautiful chapter is called “No one dies alone.” She’s had experiences with seeing people die – and she sees those souls gently being held by their guardian angel and surrounded by other angels, and surrounded by love.

I can go on, and it’s tempting to talk about every single chapter. But this gives you the idea. Lorna Byrne’s words are inspiring and uplifting.

The American edition (which I read) has an appendix at the back with a particular message of hope for America. However, it made me a little sad. This edition was published in 2012, long before the election of our current president. It tells how she sees special gathering angels, gathering people from all over the world, sending them to America. She says that she’s been told that America has a special purpose.

We need to start to pray together. I have been told that praying together is the cornerstone of creating a peaceful world. For far too long religious differences have been a cause of discord and war. Ordinary Americans praying together will allow people of different religions to get to know and understand each other. It will help them to lose their fear of one another, to see just how much they have in common, and to become friends.

I have been told that the first place that big numbers of people of different religions will start praying together regularly is America. This is one of the reasons that the American gathering angels have been bringing people of all religions to this country. It is a part of America’s destiny to help bring all religions together. America will serve as a role model: a beacon of hope for the world. From America this form of praying together will spread across the world, helping to unify peoples and to build world peace.

You can see why this discouraged me in our current climate. However, the chapter does continue with stories of seeing the Angel of Hope working extra diligently in America. I’m going to choose hope and choose to believe that in the big picture, people will listen to God through His angels and forces of good will win out.

And I can’t think of a better way to bolster hope than to read this book.

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Review of Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, by Brian Zahnd

Wednesday, February 28th, 2018

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God

The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News

by Brian Zahnd

Waterbrook, 2017. 209 pages.
Starred Review

Before I’d even finished this book, I was recommending it to people as a lovely and wonderful explanation of theology of the cross that I can get behind. It’s a compassionate outlook about a loving God, not a God who’s going to blast people.

Then I read the author’s interpretation of Revelation, and I’m not sure I’m still as enthusiastic. Basically, he says that everything in Revelation is symbolic – and believes a lot of it was for that time and has already happened. I’m not sure if I agree with this take – but I’m going to have to do some reading and thinking about Revelation.

Now, I’d thought the book was about universalism when I ordered it from Amazon. It’s not, though these teachings are very compatible with universalism. The author mentions universalism but says he just doesn’t know.

However, all that said – this explanation of the theology of the cross is indeed Very Good News.

Here’s an example from the first chapter:

What I want you to know is that God’s attitude, God’s spirit, toward you is one of unwavering fatherly-motherly love. You have nothing to fear from God. God is not mad at you. God has never been mad at you. God is never going to be mad at you. And what about the fear of God? The fear of God is the wisdom of not acting against love. We fear God in the same way that as a child I feared my father. I had the good fortune to have a wise and loving father, and I had deep respect, reverence, admiration, and, perhaps, a kind of fear for my father, but I never for one moment thought that my dad hated me or would harm me. God does not hate you, and God will never harm you. But your own sin, if you do not turn away from it, will bring you great harm. The wisdom that acknowledges this fact is what we call the fear of God. Sin is deadly, but God is love.

I know some will be quick to remind me that the writer of Hebrews tells us, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” And no doubt it is. In the hands of God, there is no place to hide. We have to be honest with ourselves about ourselves. In the hands of God, we can no longer live in the disguise of our lies. In the hands of God, we have to face ourselves. And that can be terrifying. When the prodigal son returned home and fell into the arms of his father, I’m sure the boy felt afraid. We can tell by how he immediately speaks of his unworthiness: “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” This wayward son has fallen into the hands of his father; his fate is in his father’s hands . . . and he is afraid. But there is no better place to be! This gracious father in Jesus’s parable is given to us as a picture of our heavenly Father! When the prodigal son fell fearfully into the hands of his father, forgiveness, healing, and restoration began. Just because the prodigal son felt fear as he fell into his father’s hands doesn’t mean he had anything to fear from his father. In his father’s hands was the only safe place to be. It was in the far country that the prodigal son was in danger, not in his father’s hands. When we fall into the hands of the living God, we are sinners in the hands of a loving God.

He does get his theology from the Bible, but has this word of caution:

We need to understand that the Bible is not an end in itself. The Bible is a means to an end but not the end itself. Jesus said it this way: “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” If we see the Bible as an end in itself instead of an inspired witness pointing us to Jesus, it will become an idol. Idols are gods we can manage according to our own interests. If we want to make the Bible our final authority, which is an act of idolatry, we are conveniently ignoring the problem that we can make the Bible say just about whatever we want. In doing this we bestow a supposed divine endorsement upon our already established opinion. The historical examples of this are nearly endless; crusaders, slaveholders, and Nazis have all proved themselves adept at bolstering their ideologies with images drawn from the Bible.

About the cross itself, here is an example of his teaching:

The cross is not a picture of payment; the cross is a picture of forgiveness. Good Friday is not about divine wrath; Good Friday is about divine love. Calvary is not where we see how violent God is; Calvary is where we see how violent our civilization is. The justice of God is not retributive; the justice of God is restorative. Justice that is purely retributive changes nothing. The cross is not where God finds a whipping boy to vent his rage upon; the cross is where God saves the world through self-sacrificing love. The only thing God will call justice is setting the world right, not punishing an innocent substitute for the petty sake of appeasement.

So was the death of Jesus a sacrifice? Yes, the death of Jesus was indeed a sacrifice. But it was a sacrifice to end sacrificing, not a sacrifice to appease an angry and retributive god. Jesus sacrificed himself to the love of God manifest in forgiveness, not to the wrath of God for the satisfaction of vengeance.

There’s more here. As I said, I’m not sure yet what I think about his interpretation of the book of Revelation. But so much of this book is thoroughly encouraging and uplifting, I do heartily recommend taking a look.

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Review of The Face of Water, by Sarah Ruden

Saturday, February 3rd, 2018

The Face of Water

A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible

Sarah Ruden

Pantheon Books, 2017. 229 pages.
Starred Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 Heaven’s Doors, by George W. Sarris

Saturday, January 27th, 2018

Heaven’s Doors

Wider Than You Ever Believed!

by George W. Sarris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why? Because of who God is.

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

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

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


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

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Review of Christ Triumphant, by Thomas Allin

Thursday, January 4th, 2018

Christ Triumphant

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

Annotated Edition

by Thomas Allin

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

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

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

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

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

He covers three arguments, mentioned in the subtitle:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s part of the summary of that section:

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

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

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

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

Here’s another question:

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

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

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

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

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

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


Amen, indeed!

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

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

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Review of Accidental Saints, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

Accidental Saints

Finding God in All the Wrong People

by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Convergent Books, 2015. 211 pages.
Starred Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 17th, 2017

Building a Bridge

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

by James Martin, S.J.

HarperOne, 2017. 150 pages.
Starred Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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