Archive for the ‘Christian’ Category

Review of Wearing God, by Lauren F. Winner

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

wearing_god_largeWearing God

Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God

by Lauren F. Winner

HarperOne, 2015. 284 pages.
Starred Review

This is a lovely book that challenged my thinking and opened my mind. I read it a little bit at a time, then finished the last few chapters during the 2015 48-Hour Book Challenge. In a way it was a shame to finish off the end quickly, since I liked the daily dose of thinking about God in new ways.

In this book, Lauren Winner looks at metaphors found in the Bible about God — but which the church doesn’t talk a lot about. Or at least the modern church. She did find writings from years past about each of the figures of speech.

She looks at God as clothing, God as scent, God as bread and vine, God as a laboring woman, God as one who laughs, and God as flame. All of these metaphors are found in Scripture, and all have something to offer us today.

I’ve been a church-goer all my life, and I enjoyed hearing things I hadn’t heard before. I enjoyed having a different light cast on my thinking about God.

Here are some of the author’s words in the introductory chapter:

The Bible has a great deal to say about this. Your church might primarily describe God as king, or light of the world, or ruler of all. In my church, we tend to call God Father, or speak of God as shepherd or great physician. When we are really going out on a limb, we pick up Matthew and Luke’s avian image and pray to God the mother hen tending her brood. Most churches do this — hew closely to two or three favored images of God, turning to them in prayer and song and sermons. Through repetition and association, these few images can become ever richer: there was once a time when I didn’t have many thoughts or feelings about God as great physician, but now I have prayed to that God with Carolanne, whose husband is pinned down by Parkinson’s, and Belle, who so much wants to keep this pregnancy, and Albert, who is dogged by depression, and because of those prayers, and the fears and hopes and miracles and disappointments they carry, God-as-physician seems a richer image than I first understood.

Yet the repetition of familiar images can have the opposite effect. The words become placeholders, and I can speak them so inattentively that I let them obscure the reality whose place they hold. I repeat them, I restrict my prayer to that small cupful of images, and I wind up insensible to them.

Unlike my church, with its four favored metaphors, the Bible offers hundreds of images of God — images the church has paid a great deal of attention to in earlier centuries, although many are largely overlooked now. Drunkard. Beekeeper. Homeless man. Tree. “Shepherd” and “light” are perfectly wonderful images, but in fixing on them — in fixing on any three or four primary metaphors for God — we have truncated our relationship with the divine, and we have cut ourselves off from the more voluble and variable witness of scriptures, which depict God as clothing. As fire. As comedian. Sleeper. Water. Dog.

Here is her invitation to the reader:

In this book, we will explore several overlooked biblical idioms for God. We will look at what the Bible itself suggests about these idioms, and what our daily lives have to say about them, and what various preachers and pray-ers and writers from earlier eras made of them. Your guide in this exploration is a bookworm who can happily get lost for a few days on a research trail, and I sometimes bring the words of anthropologists or historians or literary critics to bear on our ruminations. (Since the library of insights from those who have gone before us, and from contemporary scholars and preachers, is so rich, I have set additional gems at the bottoms of many pages. These quotations are there for stimulation and contemplation. Feel free to stop and linger over them, or skip them, or add your own musings.) Because I hope the book will help you sit down with God in a place the two of you have never visited before, each chapter concludes with a prayer. The final aim of this book is not to persuade you to stop thinking about God as your shepherd and start thinking about God as a cardigan sweater or One who weeps. The aim, rather, is to provoke your curiosity, and to inspire your imagination, and to invite you farther into your friendship with God.

If that invitation sounds even a tiny bit enticing, I highly recommend that you spend some time with this book.

laurenwinner.net
HarperCollins.com

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

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

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

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Review of Waking the Dead, by John Eldredge

Saturday, May 23rd, 2015

waking_the_dead_largeWaking the Dead

The Glory of a Heart Fully Alive

by John Eldredge

Nelson Books, 2003. 244 pages.
Starred Review

My church Small Group has been going through this book since last Fall, so eight months. The accompanying workbook is longer than the original book – quoting most of the book along the way! But it has been a fruitful, deep-digging study. I highly recommend this for small groups.

This book gives us the message that our hearts are good, but we are at war.

John Eldredge leans heavily on the message of myth, and that resonates with me. This book is all about awakening our hearts. Working through these ideas with a group of fellow-travelers has been wonderfully inspiring and uplifting.

He talks about four streams: Walking with God, receiving God’s intimate counsel, deep restoration, and spiritual warfare. All of these are needed in helping our hearts come alive.

The overall message is one of life, true life.

To the weary, Jesus speaks of rest. To the lost, he speaks of finding your way. Again and again and again, Jesus takes people back to their desires: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7 NIV). These are outrageous words, provocative words. Ask, seek, knock – these words invite and arouse desire. What is it that you want? They fall on deaf ears if there is nothing you want, nothing you’re looking for, nothing you’re hungry enough to bang on a door over.

Jesus provokes desire; he awakens it; he heightens it. The religious watchdogs accuse him of heresy. He says, “Not at all. This is the invitation God has been sending all along.”

This is a provocative book, as it should be with that title! You’ll encounter some ideas that aren’t necessarily widely taught. It shook up the members of our group, in a very good way. We looked at our own hearts, and the ways we are being attacked, and had our eyes opened to many things.

Read this book and get woken up.

ransomedheart.com

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

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

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

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Review of Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015

gilead_largeGilead

by Marilynne Robinson

read by Tim Jerome

BBC Audiobooks America, 2004. 7 CDs.

My co-worker Lynne Imre recommended these books, and I’ve long been meaning to read Housekeeping, so I grabbed an audiobook, which is my way of reading books I’ve long been meaning to read.

This reminded me of the Marilynne Robinson nonfiction I’ve read, When I Was a Child, I Read Books. The fictional story is narrated by an old preacher in 1956, writing a letter to his young son. The preacher, John Ames, has a heart problem, and doesn’t think he will live to see his son reach adulthood.

The book is gentle and philosophical, and has some Scriptural insights thrown in throughout, since, after all, a preacher is narrating.

Reverend Ames tells about his father and grandfather, both preachers before him. His grandfather was an abolitionist and a character.

In many ways, the book is a meditation on fathers and sons, and blessings handed down from one generation to the next. Besides John Ames’ own family, his dear friend and fellow preacher has a wayward son who was named after John Ames. Young Jack comes back to town and he and the preacher embark on a journey of understanding, forgiveness and blessing.

This is a slow moving novel, but a rich one. I didn’t always hurry to put in the next CD when one ran out, and it’s not the kind of book that it’s hard to stop the car and shut off the sound when you arrive at your destination. But sometimes that’s the best kind of audiobook — something to mull over on your commute, which will stick in your thoughts.

The reader has a deep, rich, friendly, thoughtful voice. He made it easy to imagine an old preacher speaking these words.

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

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

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

What did you think of this book?

Review of Small Victories, by Anne Lamott

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

small_victories_largeSmall Victories

Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace

by Anne Lamott

Riverhead Books, New York, 2014. 286 pages.
Starred Review

I so love Anne Lamott! This book has a notation on the front: “New and Selected Pieces.” I did, in fact, recognize some of the essays from her previous books – but they were so excellent, I didn’t mind at all being reminded of them.

Anne Lamott has such a disarming style. She reminds us that it’s completely okay to be human and that God thinks of us fondly in spite of that. Of course, I love that she’s a left-wing Christian. (There aren’t so many of them writing, but I am one, too.)

She tells true stories from her own life, and she doesn’t shy away from the ways she screws up. She doesn’t hide from us her crummy attitudes and uncharitable thoughts. When she draws lessons from these things, we’re blessed as well. And if she can get through these things, as fully human as she is – well, then maybe we can, too.

Of course, her writing also, unfailingly, makes me laugh. I love her way of looking at things. She always gives me a new, happier perspective.

The best way, though, to understand the awesomeness of Anne Lamott’s writing is to look at examples. Any time I read her books, she starts filling up my Sonderquotes pages. Now, I should mention that if you’re politically right wing, there may be a few of her comments that bother you (which is too bad, but there it is). Take a look at some examples, and then check out or buy this book!

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

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

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

What did you think of this book?

Review of Every Knee Shall Bow, by Thomas Allin and Mark T. Chamberlain

Saturday, January 24th, 2015

every_knee_shall_bow_largeEvery Knee Shall Bow

The Case for Christian Universalism

by Thomas Allin and Mark T. Chamberlain

Xulon Press, 2005. 123 pages.

In the Introduction to this book, Mark T. Chamberlain explains that it began as a revision of Thomas Allin’s earlier book, and ended up being more of a collaboration.

From my earlier reviews, anyone who’s been paying attention will realize that I have become an Evangelical Universalist, and I appreciate books that explain Evangelical Universalist beliefs and why they completely fit with the teaching of the Bible and the God we worship. Every Knee Shall Bow is one of the more enthusiastic and dogmatic of these texts, but I, already agreeing with them, found this refreshing.

I don’t think this would be the best place to start for traditional evangelicals who wonder about Universalism. However, people who have been repulsed by Christian teachings about hell may be delighted to find here a very different view, which is still Biblical, and held by more and more Christians.

As I said, this book is enthusiastic and dogmatic. I’ve kept in the exclamation marks in the text below:

Whenever I tell people that I don’t believe a loving God would allow His children to end up in eternal hell, they always answer, “Yes, God is a God of love. But He is also a God of justice.” I firmly believe in God’s justice, but by what stretch of the imagination can eternal hell be considered just? Especially when it is not only for murderers, rapists, child molesters, and torturers, but also for moral people, religious people, even kind and loving people whose “only” crime is that they didn’t pray the sinner’s prayer!

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in Romans 3:23 that “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” I believe that all of us deserve to be punished, but eternal torment?!! Can you honestly look at your unsaved relatives and say that they deserve to be tormented by demons forever? Some would say that teaching the ultimate salvation of all would either weaken or completely remove any belief in future punishment. The exact opposite is true. Most people will only believe us when we say that a just and loving God must punish sin when we teach a plan of punishment that is reasonable and credible. A penalty that seems unspeakably cruel, shocking, even monstrous loses all force as a threat! Only Universalists fully recognize both the guilt of sin and the need for a just punishment, one that fits the crime!

He soundly rejects several objections to Universalism:

Let me start out right here with a protest against the totally false view that Christian Universalists have lax views of sin or doctrine. No view so effectively proves God’s hatred of sin as this view that teaches that He cannot and will not tolerate its existence forever! …

Next I would like to say that any teaching that says even one soul will be eternally lost strikes a blow at both the incarnation and the atonement!

And there’s more:

Some think that to believe in the ultimate salvation of all implies the escape of the wicked from all punishment and places the sinner on the same level as the saint. Let me reply once and for all that nothing could be farther from the truth. For the Christian Universalist or the believer in the wider hope, as it has been called, we believe that the very method God uses to bring those who die unsaved into a saving relationship with Christ is the severity of the divine judgment, the consuming fire, that burns up all iniquity. The wider hope teaches the certainty of punishment for the obstinate sinner, because it sees God’s judgment as the mode of cure. Unrepented sin leads to an awful future penalty, a penalty that is in proportion to the guilt of the sinner, and is continued until he repents. Christian Universalists not only accept but also emphasize the terrible warning of punishment to come, because they see punishment not as needless cruelty with no purpose, but as both justice and discipline that brings the sinner to repentance.

The main question of the debate is this: Can evil ever be stronger than God? Can a Father allow the endless, hopeless sin and misery of even one of His children, and calmly look on forever and ever, unmoved and unsympathizing? The Bible speaks in Acts 3:21 of a “time for restoring all things” and in 1 Corinthians 15:28 of a time when “God will be ALL IN ALL.” And in Colossians 1:20, it speaks of God reconciling ALL things to Himself through Christ! If these verses don’t teach the salvation of all, words have no meaning!

People always tell me that all chances for salvation end at a person’s death. But where is this taught? The only passage of scripture I have ever read or heard anyone try to use to prove this is Hebrews 9:27. Let’s look at it: “And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” How does this verse teach that there are no further chances for salvation after death? Where does it say in this verse that after the judgment comes eternal hell? Nowhere! If God wants to hand down a different sentence to each individual according to the light he or she had and the sins that have been committed, why can’t He?

The author goes on to look at many Biblical arguments for Universalism, as well as the history of this view back with the Church Fathers. I like this paragraph in particular:

I protest against teaching that “all” means “all” when it is talking about sin and death, but that “all” means only “some” when spoken of final salvation. The restoration of all things means, we are told, that only some beings are to be restored, while the rest are tortured forever or annihilated. That God will be “all in all” means that millions will be cast into hell forever to hate God and blaspheme Him forever and only a few will be saved. That His tender mercies are over all His works means, in the traditional creed, that His tender mercies expire at the gates of hell. It is ludicrous that those who believe in everlasting hell charge us with evading the words of Scripture.

You can tell that the author does not go easy on the traditional view. As such, this might not be the best book to convince someone who has long and conscientiously felt that it is the only Biblical view. They may not like the way he characterizes their cherished beliefs.

Now, he does look at the original Greek of many Biblical texts. He says, “I believe that not one passage found anywhere in the Bible teaches endless suffering when fairly translated and understood.”

At the very least, you can feel the author’s passion for his subject. Here’s a section from the summing up chapter at the end:

The question of Universalism is usually argued as if the main point is man’s endless suffering. As odious and repulsive as the idea of endless suffering is, it is not the main point. The vital question is who will win the battle for men’s souls, God or the devil? Which is more powerful, righteousness or sin?

The popular creed makes sin eternal, although God’s Word says that Jesus came to put away sin. It makes God’s wrath eternal, although Scripture says that it is only for a moment. It denies the Scripture in 2 Peter 3:13, which says that we are waiting for a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness (and by implication, only righteousness) dwells. It never explains how the saints can enjoy heaven while their mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and husbands and wives are suffering unspeakable agony in hell. It never explains how God can be all in all when there exists a place for all eternity where men and women will join their shrieks of agony with curses and blasphemy toward the God, who claimed to be their Father, but has abandoned them.

What would we think of a woman or a man who took pride in keeping an immaculate house who swept all of the dirt into a room away from the rest of the house? Not only that, but what if she or he cleansed the things in the house that least needed cleaning and reserved only the filthiest things for sweeping into the room? That is what the God of eternal hell does. He cleanses some of the filth in His house, but the worst of it He sweeps into a “room” called hell, where it’s out of sight, out of mind. And worst of all, the dirt He sweeps into this dreadful “room” called hell is not inanimate objects but people – people who for all their faults still have feelings, who have other people who are dear to them and people they are dear to. Worst of all, God, their Creator, once said that He loved them so much that He sent His Son to die for them. Some of them didn’t even know about Him and His professed love for them! But now it’s too late. They are lost forever!

xulonpress.com

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

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

Review of The Church of Mercy, by Pope Francis

Friday, January 23rd, 2015

church_of_mercy_largeThe Church of Mercy

A Vision for the Church

by Pope Francis

Loyola Press, Chicago, 2014. 150 pages.

I’m not a Catholic, so I was surprised how much I was uplifted by this book. They are basically sermons Pope Francis has preached, and they retain the feeling of the spoken word. (More exclamation marks than you would use if it was originally in written form, for example.) They are short, and one chapter at a time made a nice addition to my daily quiet times.

Here’s a passage I particularly liked:

Whenever we Christians are enclosed in our groups, our movements, our parishes, in our little worlds, we remain closed, and the same thing happens to us that happens to anything closed: when a room is closed, it begins to get dank. If a person is closed up in that room, he or she becomes ill! Whenever Christians are enclosed in their groups, parishes, and movements, they take ill. If a Christian goes to the streets, or to the outskirts, he or she may risk the same thing that can happen to anyone out there: an accident. How often have we seen accidents on the road! But I am telling you: I would prefer a thousand times over a bruised Church to an ill Church! A Church, a catechist, with the courage to risk going out, and not a catechist who is studious, who knows everything but is always closed — such a person is not well. And sometimes he or she is not well in the head . . .

But, careful! Jesus does not say, Go off and do things on your own. No! That is not what he is saying. Jesus says, Go, for I am with you! This is what is so beautiful for us; it is what guides us. If we go out to bring his Gospel with love, with a true apostolic spirit, with parrhesia, he walks with us, he goes ahead of us and he gets there first.

You can see that there are inspiring thoughts here for Christians of all flavors. And the overall message is indeed to become a church of mercy and a church known for love.

You could say to me, “But the church is made up of sinners; we see them every day.” And this is true: we are a Church of sinners. And we sinners are called to let ourselves be transformed, renewed, sanctified by God. Throughout history, some have been tempted to say that the Church is the Church of only the pure and the perfectly consistent, and it expels all the rest. This is not true! This is heresy! The Church, which is holy, does not reject sinners; she does not reject us all; she does not reject us because she calls everyone, welcomes them, is open even to those furthest from her; she calls everyone to allow themselves to be enfolded by the mercy, the tenderness, and the forgiveness of the Father, who offers everyone the possibility of meeting him, of journeying toward sanctity.

“Well! Father, I am a sinner; I have tremendous sins. How can I possibly feel part of the Church?” Dear brother, dear sister, this is exactly what the Lord wants, that you say to him, “Lord, here I am, with my sins.” Is one of you here without sin? Anyone? No one, not one of us. We all carry our sins with us. But the Lord wants to hear us say to him, “Forgive me, help me to walk, change my heart!” And the Lord can change your heart. In the Church, the God we encounter is not a merciless judge but is like the Father in the Gospel parable. You may be like the son who left home, who sank to the depths, farthest from the Gospel. When you have the strength to say, “I want to come home,” you will find the door open. God will come to meet you because he is always waiting for you – God is always waiting for you. God embraces you, kisses you, and celebrates. That is how the Lord is, that is how the tenderness of our heavenly Father is. The Lord wants us to belong to a Church that knows how to open her arms and welcome everyone, that is not a house for the few, but a house for everyone, where all can be renewed, transformed, sanctified by his love – the strongest and the weakest, sinners, the indifferent, those who feel discouraged or lost.

I love that his exhortations sound like something I could hear in a Protestant church. Truly, we are one Church.

We are not Christians “part-time,” only at certain moments, in certain circumstances, in certain decisions; no one can be Christian in this way. We are Christian all the time! Totally! May Christ’s truth, which the Holy Spirit teaches us and gives to us, always and totally affect our daily life. Let us call on him more often so that he may guide us on the path of disciples of Christ. Let us call on him every day. I am making this suggestion to you: let us invoke the Holy Spirit every day; in this way the Holy Spirit will bring us close to Jesus Christ.

Worshipping the Lord means giving him the place that he must have; worshipping the Lord means stating, believing – not only by our words – that he alone truly guides our lives. Worshipping the Lord means that we are convinced before him that he is the only God, the God of our lives, the God of history.

This has a consequence in our lives: we have to empty ourselves of the many small or great idols that we have and in which we take refuge, on which we often seek to base our security. They are idols that we sometimes keep well hidden; they can be ambition, careerism, a taste for success, placing ourselves at the center, the tendency to dominate others, the claim to be the sole masters of our lives, some sins to which we are bound, and many others. I would like a question to resound in the heart of each one of you, and I would like you to answer it honestly: Have I considered which idol lies hidden in my life that prevents me from worshipping the Lord? Worshipping is stripping ourselves of our idols, even the most hidden ones, and choosing the Lord as the center, as the highway of our lives.

I’m glad I read this book, and glad to catch a glimpse of the heart of Pope Francis. I’m encouraged that a man with such a heart is leading the Catholic church.

loyolapress.com

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

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

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

Review of Her Gates Will Never Be Shut, by Bradley Jersak

Saturday, November 8th, 2014

her_gates_will_never_be_shut_largeHer Gates Will Never Be Shut

Hope, Hell, and the New Jerusalem

by Bradley Jersak

Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2009. 220 pages.
Starred Review

I’ve written about other books that have convinced me of the viewpoint of Evangelical Universalism, that hell, though real, does not last forever and ever. This book had some ideas in it that are new to me and answered some of my last points of doubt. It is the book I will now recommend to evangelicals who have studied theology and are concerned about believing what the Bible teaches.

It’s interesting to me that Bradley Jersak was especially strong in explaining a Universalist view of Revelation – yet he is not dogmatic about his views at all. He sounds more like I did when my eyes were first opened to the possibility that this might be true, that this might really be what the Bible is teaching.

Here’s his explanation in the introductory chapter, “Presumptions and Possibilities.” First he explains three theological views about hell: Infernalism, that unbelievers will be tormented forever and ever; annihilationism, that those who go to hell will be completely consumed and no longer exist; and universalism, that hell won’t last more than an age and will eventually be emptied out, and God will be all in all. He goes on to give his own perspective:

We all have a bias. The important thing is to recognize your bias and be able to defend or explain it. As a “critical realist,” I spend a good deal of time and energy studying my biases – how they emerged, and how they influence my thinking. Rather than pretending to be perfectly objective, I confess that since my early days as a terrified infernalist, I have developed a strong preference for hope. I hope in the Good News that God’s love rectifies every injustice through forgiveness and reconciliation. The Gospel of hope that I can preach boldly is this:

God is not angry with you and never has been. He loves you with an everlasting love. Salvation is not a question of “turn or burn.” We’re burning already, but we don’t have to be! Redemption! The life and death of Christ showed us how far God would go to extend forgiveness and invitation. His resurrection marked the death of death and the evacuation of Hades. My hope is in Christ, who rightfully earned his judgment seat and whose verdict is restorative justice, that is to say, mercy.

Hope. That is my bias, and I believe that Scripture, tradition, and experience confirm it. I want to explain and validate my hope in those contexts. This book will address the central problem of this “heated” debate: not infernalism versus annihilationism versus universalism, but rather, authentic, biblical Christian hope vis-à-vis the error of dogmatic presumption (of any view). Hope presumes nothing but is rooted in a deeper confidence: the love and mercy of an openhearted and relentlessly kind God.

In short, I do not intend to convince readers of a particular theology of divine judgment. I hope, rather, to recall those relevant bits of Scripture, history, and tradition that ought to inform whatever view we take on this important topic.

Brad Jersak looks at some of the same passages I’d read about in other universalist books. But he adds some perspectives I hadn’t heard before. He does look at the Greek and Hebrew words used regarding hell, and then we come to a chapter called “The Gehenna Tradition(s).” The author states:

I have devoted an entire chapter to the Gehenna tradition, because it is not just another term for hell: it represents a pivotal point in our understanding of divine judgment. Our understanding – or misunderstanding – of the Gehenna tradition(s) shapes our view of hell and judgment. More than that, it profoundly influences our understanding of Jesus’ ministry and message. I don’t presume to have it all figured out, but so much essential data has been overlooked (esp. Jesus’ use of the Jeremiah tradition) that it behooves me to share some of the results of my spadework.

His study of Gehenna throughout the Old and New Testaments, as well as in the Apocrypha and the Talmud (and he lays out all this in detail) brings him to this conclusion:

Unfortunately, Christian tradition, theology, and translation followed the apocryphal reading of Gehenna rather than the biblical tradition of Jeremiah and Jesus. The Church zigged with Enoch, Esdras et al when Jesus zagged with Jeremiah, so to speak….

While the legacy of Gehenna stands as a genuine warning of destruction to those who persist in rebellion and idolatry, Jeremiah and Jesus forewarn us to avoid the consequential wrath. For those who experience the calamities of the “way of death,” the invitation is extended to a New Covenant of restoration. Sin and its consequences are overcome by redemption and restoration. Rather than terrorizing the world with eternal, conscious torment in a literal lake of fire, the Church can hold out the New Covenant of Jesus in which even the Valley of Slaughter is sanctified, every curse of destruction is broken, and God’s exiles find their way home.

And here’s almost a side note against the infernalists:

We ought to also note the irony and incongruence of the Church utilizing the very place where God became violently offended by the literal burning of children as our primary metaphor for a final and eternal burning of God’s wayward people in literal flames. Thus, God becomes the very Molech who decrees that the angels must deliver his children to the flames, even though this was the very reason he ordered Hinnom to be desecrated in the first place!

He goes on to look at judgment as seen throughout the Bible, the lake of fire, and the rich man and Lazarus, as well as the views of theologians since the beginning of the church.

After looking at texts about hell, he goes on to look at texts about redemption. I particularly like this paragraph:

God deals with sin through correction, not punishment. That’s Clement, that’s Hebrews, that’s Hosea. The chastisements of God are disciplinary: not because divine justice demands satisfaction (Anselm, Cur Deus Homo), payback, or wrath (Calvin, penal satisfaction!), but because God is raising beloved children who tend to learn the hard way. The hardest lesson we learn is the lesson of the Cross: the horrible revelation that it was each of us who crucified perfect Love (Zech 12:10), yet in love God forgave us (1 John 4:9-10). This is more than learning by moral influence. The Cross is a revelation of God’s love, our violence, and Jesus’ power to forgive and redeem – all at once. Don’t miss this point, because it marks a major fork in the theological trail. For centuries, I fear that we veered when Clement actually had it right.

This section also looks at various traditions in the church, how the infernalist view came to be widespread, and various different views today.

The last section, “Her Gates Will Never Be Shut,” has a subtitle of “Hints of Ultimate Redemption in Revelation 21-22.” I had always thought those chapters were some of the hardest to reconcile with universalism, but Brad Jersak sees them as a crucial part in his hope of redemption for all.

Especially interesting is how he ties the words of Revelation about the water of life flowing from the throne with the Gehenna tradition he’d already explored.

Here’s an interesting passage. Before reading this book, I hadn’t even realized there’s a more natural way to read Revelation 22. Speaking of verse 14, he says:

It would be tempting to excerpt this verse from its context to make it read that we are blessed if we have washed our robes in the Gospel blood of Christ in this life so that we can be welcomed into the gates of the New Jerusalem in the next. In fact, to avoid any posthumous possibility of salvation, one must read it that way. But if we remain ardently biblical (now is not the time to waffle), the text says far more than that.

First, those who say yes to the Gospel in this life are already part of the Bride, adorned in righteous robes, coming down as the New Jerusalem and issuing the invitation to others to enter. I.e., those who are washed are already “in.” The universal invitation is for those outside the city and needing to enter after the establishment of the new creation.

Lest the invitation be misunderstood as an anything goes pluralistic universalism, there is a hard pause. Anyone can come, but only if they have their robes washed in the blood of the Lamb. Only upon a specifically Christian redemption can one enter the gates and eat from the tree of life that grows in the city (another picture of Jesus). This vision declares the possibility and the hope that even in the next age, there are those whose thirst will finally bring them to say yes to the Lamb, even those who were unable to do so on this side of the grave.

Brad Jersak has an Addendum at the end, “A Word to Fellow Evangelicals.” So much of it mirrors what I’d like to say to my fellow evangelicals as well, so I’m going to include some bits from that in conclusion.

We need to become even more biblical than that, allowing Scripture to trump our inherited ideologies even when we’ve invested so much of our hearts in those systems. Dare we let Scripture say what it says without reinterpreting what it “really means” into the margins of our Study Bibles?

Second, if we listen honestly, we will discern between pluralists who see every path leading to heavenly bliss without judgment and without Jesus vis-à-vis the ultimate redemptionists, who continue to say “no one comes to the Father except through Jesus” and “no one enters the kingdom without having his or her robe washed in the Lamb’s blood.” Yet the latter group proclaims with Revelation 21-22 that heaven’s door never shuts, and the Spirit and Bride continue to say, “come.” They hope that all may still ultimately respond to the Gospel with a “Yes!” They do not believe in a second-chance theology; it is a seventy-times-seven-and-beyond hope. The question is, is there a place among evangelicals for them?

And I related tremendously to this:

I find myself more freely evangelistic now than at any other time in my life, and yet without any pressure or fear. It is wonderful….

I conclude with this exhortation to examine our hearts on this question: What in us needs the traditional infernalist version of hell? What purpose does it fulfill? Is it our carnal sense of justice as payback or an even darker Schadenfreude? If anything needs purging, it is that. In exchange, I believe God has called us to surrender our self-assurance for a much broader and deeper hope.

Brad Jersak is not presumptuous. He is not dogmatic. But he brings up some valid questions for Christians, and I think points out some wonderful, blessed reasons to increase our hope.

Please don’t rely on my summary and excerpts. He has much more to say. If you’re coming from an Evangelical perspective, I highly recommend this book. If you’re starting from outside the church, there are better places to start, but please take away this message: God is not angry with you and never has been. His punishments are disciplinary because He sees you as a beloved child who tends to learn the hard way. The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!”

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Review of Hope Beyond Hell, by Gerry Beauchemin

Sunday, July 20th, 2014

hope_beyond_hell_largeHope Beyond Hell

The Righteous Purpose of God’s Judgment

by Gerry Beauchemin

Malista Press, Olmito, Texas, 2007. 245 pages.
Starred Review

Years ago, through reading the books of George MacDonald, and through reading the Bible trying to put aside my preconceived notions, I came to believe that the Bible actually teaches that hell is not forever — that it has a redemptive purpose and will eventually be emptied out and every knee will bow to our loving Father. George MacDonald, however, while implying that this is what the Bible teaches, doesn’t lay out an argument of why he believes the Bible teaches this. Gerry Beauchemin, in this book, lays out an excellent argument.

Gerry Beauchemin calls his view “The Blessed Hope.” I like that very much, and much better than “Universalism,” because I think it’s different than what most people think of when they hear “Universalism.” Yes, I believe in hell. But I believe it represents the lengths to which a loving Father will go to bring his children back to Himself. It is not purposeless, everlasting torment.

Now, many Christians will automatically be arguing, “But that’s what the Bible says?” Is it really? I suggest you read this book and rethink that view. And I agree with the author that The Blessed Hope honors the character of God.

God is good even in His judgments. They are not infinite and horrendously cruel, but just, righteous, and remedial.

Many people don’t realize that the view that hell is eternal is not the one the church fathers held. I certainly didn’t realize that. Although this view is common today, it actually originated with Augustine, and so is called the Augustinian tradition here.

First, the author presents the pillars of his argument. The first pillar is the meaning of the Greek word Aion, which is more consistently translated “age” than “eternal.” Interestingly, Augustine, who supported the “eternal” interpretation (which is not consistent with other usage), was one of the first church leaders who wasn’t a native Greek speaker.

Then he talks about Gehenna, the lake of fire, which is every time spoken of as something finite, like prison. Also the word for “destruction,” apollumi is shown to mean “set aside,” “bring to nothing,” not “annihilate.” The author says, “Popular theology claims God is able to do all things except restore the destroyed for whom Christ died. Really?”

He also looks at God’s will and man’s free will. “God ‘will’ have all men to be saved. Does this mean God purposes with intent to accomplish His will, or that He merely desires it with no power to make it happen?”

He sums up the chapter on “Pillars” with this paragraph:

In this chapter, we have examined the foundational pillars upon which belief in infinite punishment is based and found them wanting. How many Christians including pastors and theologians have critically examined these pillars in light of the evidence presented here? I would venture to say very few. Given this evidence, let us explore with a fresh and open mind, unshackled by a flawed system and study the following chapters in sincerity and truth. Is there hope beyond Gehenna and the lake of fire? Might these judgments also have a positive purpose in God’s unfailing plan for man? The answer lies in the very nature of God Himself. Would a truly all-powerful and all-loving Creator bring into existence billions of people knowing well they would suffer for eternity as a result? Would He really pay such a price to get a few to love Him forever? This is what our tradition has taught. Is it true?

I do believe that Gerry Beauchemin goes on to present a wonderfully logical and complete argument for The Blessed Hope. Honestly, his words fill me with joy and love for my loving Father, who is Good, not vindictive and harsh and cruel. I am so glad that the people around me who don’t see things exactly my way will not be suffering in hell for all eternity — even the ones who make some bad choices in this life! (And don’t get me wrong — I wish they’d spare themselves a lot of suffering on that path to Life! But I really do believe God knows what each one needs.)

I’m not going to present all his arguments. Because I’d like people to consider them in full. I will, however, quote some paragraphs that I underlined in my slow savoring of the book.

This is from a chapter on God’s nature:

The longsuffering of our Lord “is” salvation. What a thought! When does the longsuffering of our heavenly Father for His children ever end? Does it end sooner than yours toward your children? The love of God expressed in His longsuffering will do what His brute power could never do — win the hearts of His enemies (Ps. 66:3-4) and make them His friends (Jer. 31:34; Jn. 15:15; Ro. 5:10).

Another interesting paragraph comes after quoting Christ telling his disciples to pray that God would send out laborers into His harvest (Mt. 9:36-38):

Why are we asked to pray for laborers for the harvest? Why are they needed? Doesn’t the text say it is because people are weary, scattered, distressed, and dispirited? But what has our tradition led us to believe? Answer: To pray because all people are on their way to hell! Isn’t there an inconsistency here?

And here is the introductory paragraph to the chapter called “Purpose-Driven Judgment”:

Is there any positive purpose to God’s Gehenna judgment? What purpose does it serve? According to the prevalent theology, its only purpose is to inflict pain. It refuses to acknowledge it has any remedial effect, and presents it merely as a perpetual prison from which its victims can never escape. I intend to show in this chapter the following facts: First, this view is simply unjust, and Scripture does not support unjust punishment of any kind. Second, Scripture affirms death is no obstacle to God in accomplishing His purposes in any life. Third, God is just and His justice satisfies even our God given human understanding of justice. Fourth, the Bible provides clear examples that all His judgments are driven by a positive purpose.

This paragraph echoed my own experiences when I read the Bible after becoming convinced that George MacDonald (who studied Greek) believed the Bible did not teach that hell lasts forever:

Most of us are not aware of how powerfully our paradigms affect how we understand the Scriptures. They force us to conclude certain passages do not mean what they say. Unless we are keenly aware of this, and make a diligent effort to compare Scripture with Scripture, we cannot see truth staring us in the face. It has been a slow, hard process for me. But once I stepped out of the eternal hell paradigm and began seeing Scripture without that filter, I was freed to receive God’s revelation in a fresh new way.

He looks at proclamations from Scripture, the Apostles, church fathers, logic, the character of God, and consequences. Is Christ really the Savior of the World?

Scripture refers to Christ as the Savior of the World. In fact, “Jesus” means savior (Mt. 1:21). The Father sent Him as such (1Jn. 4:14). Though popular theology gives lip service to this title, it actually denies it. It attests instead that Christ is merely the Savior of “some out” of the world. Or again, He is the “wish to be” Savior of the world. If the mass of humanity is lost forever, call Him what you will, He is not the Savior of the world. It does not matter that few, many, or most of the world is saved. Even if none are saved, He would still be referred to as “Savior of the world.” For the reasoning is simple: to offer salvation, makes a savior. That is strange indeed — “The Savior of the world not saved.” What would you think of a lifeguard who was hailed as the hero of the day at the funeral of a young child for merely having offered her a life preserver and then threw it to the other end of the pool?

Here’s an interesting summary:

The Blessed Hope and the Augustinian Tradition present two opposing views of God. Of these two ancient theologies, only the first does justice to the character of our glorious God as He is revealed in Christ. It is what the prophets, the apostles, and the early Church embraced. The second, on the other hand, is shackled by a theology of terror which I contend is the primary reason the Gospel has not yet taken the world by storm. Is it by coincidence that once it dominated the western church the medieval world plunged into the “dark ages”?

I am by no means presenting all the arguments here. If this interests you at all, I strongly recommend this book. As for me? Reading this book filled me with joyful, blessed hope.

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Review of God Is Able, by Priscilla Shirer

Tuesday, April 8th, 2014

God Is Able

by Priscilla Shirer

B&H Publishing Group, Nashville, Tennessee, 2013. 157 pages.

A big thank you to my friend Ruth for giving me this book for Christmas!

God Is Able looks closely at Ephesians 3:20-21:

Now to Him who is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.

Each chapter looks at one phrase from these verses, attempting to get all their gloriousness to sink into our hearts.

She writes in a colloquial style. She gives lots of examples and illustrations. The real power of this book, though, is in its ability to get you thinking about these powerful verses. Reading a chapter about each phrase only begins to do them justice.

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Review of The Only Necessary Thing, by Henri J. M. Nouwen

Monday, March 24th, 2014

The Only Necessary Thing

Living a Prayerful Life

by Henri J. M. Nouwen
compiled and edited by Wendy Wilson Greer

Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1999. 224 pages.
Starred Review

Here is an excellent choice for reading small bits daily as a devotional book. They are sections taken from the body of work by Henri Nouwen, compiling his teaching on prayer.

Here’s his “Invitation” at the front of the book:

The invitation to a life of prayer is the invitation to live in the midst of this world without being caught in the net of wounds and needs. The word “prayer” stands for a radical interruption of the vicious chain of interlocking dependencies leading to violence and war and for an entering into a totally new dwelling place. It points to a new way of speaking, a new way of breathing, a new way of being together, a new way of knowing, yes, a whole new way of living.

It is not easy to express the radical change that prayer represents, since for many the word “prayer” is associated with piety, talking to God, thinking about God, morning and evening exercises, Sunday services, grace before meals, sentences from the Bible, and many other things. All of these have something to do with prayer, but when I speak about prayer as the basis for peacemaking, I speak first of all about moving away from the dwelling place of those who hate peace into the house of God. . . . Prayer is the center of the Christian life. It is the only necessary thing (Luke 10:42). It is living with God here and now.

Some other sections struck me, so I’ll list a few for you here. This will give you the idea of the book. It’s got thoughtful, meditative insights on living a prayerful life.

But, as Christians, we are called to convert our loneliness into solitude. We are called to experience our aloneness not as a wound but as a gift — as God’s gift — so that in our aloneness we might discover how deeply we are loved by God.
It is precisely where we are most alone, most unique, most ourselves, that God is closest to us. That is where we experience God as the divine, loving Father, who knows us better than we know ourselves.
Solitude is the way in which we grow into the realization that where we are most alone, we are most loved by God. It is a quality of heart, an inner quality that helps us to accept our aloneness lovingly, as a gift from God.

Another:

Prayer, then, is listening to that voice — to the One who calls you the Beloved. It is to constantly go back to the truth of who we are and claim it for ourselves. I’m not what I do. I’m not what people say about me. I’m not what I have. Although there is nothing wrong with success, there is nothing wrong with popularity, there is nothing wrong with being powerful, finally my spiritual identity is not rooted in the world, the things the world gives me. My life is rooted in my spiritual identity. Whatever we do, we have to go back regularly to that place of core identity.

From the section on “Belovedness”:

God does not require a pure heart before embracing us. Even if we return only because following our desires has failed to bring happiness, God will take us back. Even if we return because being a Christian brings us more peace than being a pagan, God will receive us. Even if we return because our sins did not offer as much satisfaction as we had hoped, God will take us back. Even if we return because we could not make it on our own, God will receive us. God’s love does not require any explanations about why we are returning. God is glad to see us home and wants to give us all we desire, just for being home.

I liked this one from the section on “Forgiveness”:

The interesting thing is that when you can forgive people for not being God then you can celebrate that they are a reflection of God. You can say, “Since you are not God, I love you because you have such beautiful gifts of God’s love.” You don’t have everything of God, but what you have to offer is worth celebrating. By celebrate, I mean to lift up, affirm, confirm, to rejoice in another person’s gifts. You can say you are a reflection of that unlimited love.

And finally, I love the image in this one:

Forgiveness is the great spiritual weapon against the Evil One. As long as we remain victims of anger and resentment, the power of darkness can continue to divide us and tempt us with endless power games. But when we forgive those who threaten our lives, they lose their power over us…. Forgiveness enables us to take the first step of the dance.

Some beautiful thoughts for people interested in deepening their prayer lives.

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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.