Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power

Andy Crouch has given us a beautiful book. (Sadly,if you’re reading it on your iPad you won’t be able to appreciate this.) The matte black jacket that has a slightly tacky feel. The multicolored crown graphic – the lower of which is the negative (I think) of the upper. The font. It all works well – bearing  the combination of Andy’s unmistakable touch and the skill of designers at InterVarsity Press – a redemptive sharing of power and a sign that others are flourishing. But I’m getting ahead of myself…Playing God Cover

Actually, what Andy has written in Playing God is even more beautiful. So by way of disclaimer, if my comments below make his work seem less than amazing, disregard my notes and go straight to the book.

For me, this book was transformational. In truth, my own take on power has been deeply conflicted and inconsistent for a long time – probably as long as I can remember. Despite reading and reflection – I’ve read any number of books about power & influence, studied with leadership thought leader Ron Heifetz at the Kennedy School, and even preached on this theme – I’ve been unable to overcome a profound tension. On the one hand, I’ve understood Jesus, whose life and teaching has always seemed to me one big invitation to lay down power and embrace the way of the cross. On the other hand, I work alongside students, professionals and faculty who are engaged in the academic enterprise at one of the most powerful academic communities in the world – followers of Jesus who want to USE their power in ways that faithfully express the way of Jesus.

Tony Campolo describes this stark tension better than anyone. In his 1980’s book, The Power Delusion, he highlighted the research of a little-known sociologist, Willard Waller, who articulated his “principle of least interest” – a defining motif for Tony that pits love AGAINST power. For example,

In both dating and marriage, each person endeavors to gain power over his or her partner. One way to do this is to withhold love. Therefore, the person who loves the least has the most power, and the person who loves the most has the least power. (p. 18)

So, in Tony’s economy (and in my own understanding for as long as I can remember) love and power cannot coexist peacefully – in order to love one had to lay down power. It is love OR power – it is binary. For Tony, at least in his writing, there was no recognition that love might not just coexist but be expressed through power. For him the only way to love is to renounce power. To be sure, Andy does come back to the abuses of power (playing a false god) later in the book. But first he writes expansively about the amazing gift of power and this was where my own view began to be transformed.

What I liked:

1. Andy starts and ends with the Bible

While he recognizes that the Bible isn’t a handbook about power, Andy invites us to bring our questions to the text and the God who speaks there, “asking,” as he says, “the Bible to form our imaginations about power” (p. 12). When he does this, it gives us permission set aside poorly integrated ideas about what power is and what it means to live with it faithfully. Asking us to read the whole Bible – including the first two chapters of Genesis and the last two chapters of Revelation, referring to the resurrection of Jesus as “the most audacious act of power in the history of the world” (p. 25).

2. Andy has given us a great definition of power and told us what it is for – Flourishing

For Andy, “power is the ability to make something of the world” and to interpret and give it meaning (p. 17-18). Power isn’t just destructive or coercive – it is creative. And when it is used well, it multiplies and creates more power for others. In fact, this is one test of power’s legitimacy: “when one person or group of people acts to deprive another of power, and especially when that pattern of exclusion persists from generation to generation—then something has gone fiercely wrong… true power multiplies capacity and wealth…” (p. 19). “Power is for image bearing and image bearing is for flourishing” (p. 54).

3. Andy describes the problem – Idolatry & Injustice

Idols are what people come up with when they misuse their creative power. They are objects made without reference to the truth of God and his character.  They claim – apart from God – to have the true interpretation of reality. Injustice is the practical outcome of idolatry since the idol has been substituted for the image of the true God. “God hates injustice and idolatry because they are the same thing… Whether making false gods (idolatry) or playing false gods (injustice) the result is identical—the true image of God is lost…” (p. 71). Andy’s description and illustrations relating idolatry and injustice were the clearest and most persuasive explanations I’ve read.

4. Andy invites us to “play God” as “Icons” of the true God

I’ve gotta say that this language isn’t what I would have chosen – it makes me nervous. For Andy “Playing God” is not just a critique of those who would misuse power as false gods. It is his invitation to the followers of the true God to – by grace – live as Icons – to “play God” – bearing God’s true image and exercising power for flourishing (p. 87).

5. Andy says that privilege is “power that requires no effort”

It is “the ongoing benefits of past successful exercises of power”(p. 150), and if we take the model of Jesus, is to be spent rather than conserved.

6. Institutions are the way we make something of the world and get it to stick

Andy’s formula for institutions includes what he calls four ingredients (artifacts, arenas, rules and roles) and three generations (founders, children, children’s children). Our role is to function as trustees (p. 213) who neither overplay or underplay their power. His discussion of Martin Luther King and the passivity of white moderates when they could have joined him in his “illegal protests” highlights the fact that institutions depend on the courage and action of people (p. 219).

7. Andy reminds us that God has provided practical and deeply spiritual means for taming power
He writes:

So anyone who desires to use their power for image bearing rather than god playing needs to embrace not just the disciplines that lead to success but the disciplines that lead away from it. The classical Christian tradition has emphasized three practices that radically interrupt lives of power and privilege: solitude, silence and fasting. Each of these practices involves the intentional pursuit of secret defeat, the perfect antidote to a life of sociable success. And each of these contributes to shaping us into image bearers who can use whatever power we are given humbly and wisely. (p. 239)

His discussion of gleaning and it’s application in modern settings to margins, the economy and power in general is a marvelous if improbable response to shareholder demands and personal ambition to claim all the value (p. 248).

What I’m still thinking about:

1. In working with younger people, how and when have you found it best to introduce this vision of power? Fr. Richard Rohr has said:

Unless a boy is initiated into “the mysteries” he will not now what to do with his pain and he would almost always abuse his power. (The Spiritual Journey of Transformation, Disc 1)

So by Fr. Rohr’s account I still have time for our two boys at home. I guess what I want to know is whether it’s too late to catch them if they’re already here at graduate school.

2. I know he only gave it one paragraph, but I’d like to hear more about why Andy so quickly writes off the community organizing approach of Saul Alinsky, calling it “zero sum.” What about times when the broader society has made peace with intrenched injustice? And what about situations where laws and other institutions align themselves symbiotically with the injustice of the root institution. Surely there are times when the coming together of the poor and dispossessed to organize themselves is a good use of power?  What about the American Revolution?  Or the ANC in South Africa?  Are some institutions not meant to be torn down?

Each spring prior to Commencement the InterVarsity Graduate & Faculty Fellowship at Harvard gathers to bless and pray for dozens of students, commissioning them at our Ordination to Daily Work. Previously on these occasions it has seemed to me that the path of faithfulness for these soon-to-be-graduates was to receive the blessing, take the degree and then lay down all the related benefits (aka power) that a graduate degree from Harvard brings with it. Renouncing power for the love of God and neighbor. Now, I and my fellow chaplains will be able to point to a different way – encouraging these graduating friends to lay down their idols and become holy icons whose power and privilege is multiplied and shared and shaped by their journey with Jesus. I can’t wait to tell them about it.

As I was finishing these notes I happened to come across six short video clips and one longer one of Andy talking about some of the key ideas in Playing God.  These are good. Even more helpful is the longer conversation with John Wilson, Books & Culture (on page 2 of the link above).

Interestingly, John says that Andy’s book was transformative for him too. Maybe for you as well?


Invitations from God: Accepting God’s Offer to Rest, Weep, Forgive, Wait, Remember and More

INVITATIONS ARE POWERFUL. Like tides, they ebb and flow, shaping the contours of our existence. Some invitations we desperately want but never get—”Will you marry me?” or “Would you consider a promotion?” Other invitations we never want to receive but must honor all the same—”We are letting you go,” “The text came back positive,” or “Your baby has Down syndrome.”  Invitations pound away at the coastlines of the soul. They contain a transforming force that can carve our possible and impossible futures.

So begins the introduction to Invitations from God, by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. The book is beautifully written, and for or my money anyway, the 19-page introduction alone is worth the price. The rest of the book is equally good and, with each chapter, lines out the invitations that frame our lives,

In order to recognize and say Yes to an invitation from God, one needs to say No to a collection of other invitations from friends, family, school, work, boredom, “the culture,” the (gulp) church, and our own compulsions. The key question, writes Adele, is, “Do the invitations we accept make us more free or less?…Learning to listen and respond to God’s invitations is the path to real freedom. Invitations from God bring healing and liberation from the gnawing lies of the enemy…Only free people know how to say yes and no.”

God’s invitations are formative and shape our character. She writes that, “God’s invitations are meant to mend, shape, anchor and grow us into the character of Jesus. They call us into our true selves in Christ… Invitations from the Holy One serve God’s dream for the world. They don’t call me to become what I produce, what others think of me or what I know. They invite me to be free.”


1.  GOD KEEPS ON INVITING  “It doesn’t matter,” Adele says, “if you were on the paid staff of hell: God’s invitation goes out to you again and again. No matter how God’s invitations get delivered, they let us know that we are wanted, loved, named and known.”

2.  GOD INVITES US TO FOLLOW  Adele observes, “Jesus doesn’t use the word leader at all, as far as I can tell.”  But the language of leadership is so common in the water in which we swim in places like Cambridge that it’s difficult to consider Jesus’ alternative – servanthood. She also doesn’t have much patience with the superficial spin that is popular today – calling “servant leadership” a rationalization for preserving a “superior heart—a heart that does not identify with the descending way of Jesus” Rather than a strategy for acquiring and wielding power, accepting Jesus’ invitation to follow him means we “risk his journey of descent—the journey that will be the making of us. Maturity, humility, patience, godliness—these are all fruit of following Jesus. These are the fruit of following Jesus down.” Consider the practices she suggests:

  • Put myself in a position to take direction, instruction or guidance from someone else.
  • Practice secrecy by keeping my accomplishments to myself.
  • practice being lead servant. Share my perks or give them away. Don’t expect special treatment.

3.  GOD INVITES US TO ADMIT WE MIGHT BE WRONG  One of my dear friends, Bill Stuntz accepted this invitation frequently. Even though he finished his brilliant academic career as renowned scholar of criminal justice at Harvard Law School, I frequently heard him preface a comment to students with, “I could be wrong about this…” It always opened up the conversation. This invitation is like a 2 x 4 across the forehead for those of us who wanto be, not just right – but good.  “The good news,” Adele reminds us, “is that I don’t need to be afraid of being wrong.  Jesus’ death on the cross undoes the lies that tell me I am loveable only when I am right.” As a start, Adele suggests that we practice awareness:

  • Notice where I am unable to let something go uncorrected.
  • Notice when I get into argument over details that may or may not be important.
  • Notice how I listen to and treat those I think are wrong.
  • Notice why it matters to me to be right.
  • Notice what heppens when I don’t defend myself and my opinions.
  • Notice how many (or I add, few) friendships I have with folks I don’t agree with.

4.  GOD INVITES US TO WAIT  “To wait expectantly and with open hands requires a relinquishment of control that gets at the roots of our motivations, fears and idilatries. It is where we learn that God isn’t a genie and that happiness is not a matter of God meeting our expectations. The truth is that God doesn’t come to us in our future. God comes now—while we wait. It’s not up to you to make things happen or to make God show up. What you can do is say yes to God’s invitation to stay alert while you wait… it is in the waiting that things happen in our soulds. In the waiting our character is formed.”  To help myself learn how to wait, I can:

  • Notice when I get impatient and stay in the moment wiht God.
  • Become aware of expectations for the day. What happens when my expectations are not met?
  • Notice what I do when I am not in control.


Honestly, this book is so beautiful and each chapter such a clear invitation of its own, I was left with few questions.  Instead, I’m working through which invitations are most important for my own walk with Jesus and how these invitations will shape our Rule of Life.  Stay tuned as we figure it out…

The Holy Rule of St. Benedict

My friends do whatever they can to keep their options open. Whether it’s an invitation to come to dinner, attend a retreat or travel to New Orleans for spring break, the people I hang with don’t say yes quickly or easily. They delay and deliberate and wait until the last minute because – I assume – they want to see if a better opportunity comes along.  If I sound whiny, it is certainly because I behave exactly this way myself – I want to choose what to do and when to do it.

At the beginning of the 6th century, a young man named Benedict left his wealthy family and the debauchery of the academy, moved into a cave near Rome, and began to pray. He read the Gospels and began to write about the way of Jesus and how it contrasted with his life of private autonomy and personal privilege.  The invitation he heard was to “give up thine own will, takest up the strong and most excellent arms of obedience…”  Not a hint of keeping one’s options open.

His Little Rule for Beginners, which became the guide for Benedictines monks, describes a way of living that is shocking, countercultural and almost completely incomprehensible in places like Cambridge.  He lines out behaviors and logistics required of a community of sinners that have gathered to live and grow in Christlikeness together.


Benedict’s Rule contains invitations that ring as true and powerful today as they did 1500 years ago.  Here are a few:

1.  Humility – The pull is strong to hold onto my “rights” – to be the master of my own destiny (let alone my money, daily schedule, what I eat, etc…).  This is the fundamental issue (I think).  Am I willing to humbly yield control to someone else – God, for instance?  It’s ok if I say no.  It just means that I shouldn’t call myself a follower of Jesus.

2.  Silence – Of course my mind immediately jumps to the times when keeping silence is the opposite of pursuing humility.  Nevertheless this is a profound idea – that I would hold my tongue when I have something to say – even when it is true, helpful and (especially) clever.

The ninth degree of humility is, when a monk withholdeth his tongue from speaking, and keeping silence doth not speak until he is asked; for the Scripture showeth that “in a multitude of words there shall not want sin” (Proverbs 10:19); and that “a man full of tongue is not established in the earth.” (Psalm 139 [140]:12).  (p. 116-117)

In graduate classrooms at Harvard where students compete for “airtime” and are scored on how frequently and how well they speak, this discipline stands out.

3.  Speaking – It doesn’t take much imagination to discern what Benedict might have to say about other forms of speech (FaceBook, blogs, etc…)

The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaketh, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: “The wise man is known by the fewness of his words.”  (p. 118)

4.  Counsel – The Rule calls for the whole community to gather when making important decisions.  And in this context it is required that all pay special attention to the younger members of the community.

It is for this reason, however, we said that all should be called for counsel, because the Lord often revealeth to the younger what is best.  (p. 56)

Humility recognizes that God’s way may be seen most clearly through the powerless and (seemingly) insignificant.

5.  Obedience – This is one of the hallmarks of the monastic life envisioned by Benedict and envisions obedience to the Abbot as equivalent to obedience to God.

… not living according to their own desires and pleasures but walking according to the judgment and will of another, they live in monasteries, and desire an Abbot to be over them… This obedience, however, will be acceptable to God and agreeable to men then only, if what is commanded is done without hesitation, delay, lukewarmness, grumbling or complaint, because the obedience which is rendered to Superiors is rendered to God.  (p. 79-81)

I read those lines and wonder why, as crazy scary as they sounds, I am drawn to it.  Perhaps it is because it makes concrete the sort of obedience in my better moments that I want to offer to my God.  Certainly it is the sort of obedience I long for from my own children!

6.  Prayer – Benedict called for prayers to be short – another mark of humility.

And let us be assured that it is not in many words, but in the purity of heart and tears of compunction that we are heard.  (p. 179)

7.  Hospitality – My first experience with the Rule of Benedict came in 1983 on a retreat at Glastonbury Abbey in Hingham, MA.  All of us were warmly welcomed by the brothers to participate fully in the worship and life of the community.

In the greeting let all humility be shown to the guests, whether coming or coming; with the head bowed down or the whole body prostrate on the ground, let Christ be adored in them as He is also received.  (P. 325)

I don’t remember the brothers laying prostrate on the ground in front of our group of graduate students but their welcome to us was as they would have welcomed Christ.

8.  Eating – I can’t imagine what Benedict would say about the way those of us with money and access to an almost infinite variety of foods eat what we eat.

…we believe that for the daily meal, both at the sixth hour and the ninth hour, two kinds of cooked food are sufficient for all meals…  Let a pound of bread be sufficient for the day, whether there be only one meal or both dinner and supper.  (p. 257-258)

I remember reading somewhere that John R. W. Stott was known to never return for seconds at a meal – a practice he adopted so that he might be continually reminded of the privilege and blessing he had to be able to have enough food and water – something that many others around the world lacked.


1. Humor – Benedict may have been a very likable guy but (it seems) he was not a joker. At least he doesn’t express much of a sense of humor. Even more, he writes that speaking in a way that makes others laugh is forbidden.

The Instruments of Good Works [include]:  (54) Not to speak useless words and such as provoke laughter.  (55) Not to love much or boisterous laughter.  (p. 68)

But coarse jests, and idle words or speech provoking laughter, we condemn everywhere to eternal exclusion; and for such speech we don not permit the disciple to open his lips.  (p. 87-88)

He doesn’t really say why. Perhaps he is picking up on Paul’s admonitions against “coarse joking” (Ephesians 5:4) or the warnings in James (James 4:7-10). Maybe he is cautious because of the tendency of humor – especially the sort of snarky, cynical humor (did they have cynicism back then?) we know all too well today – to draw attention to oneself while it degrades and embarrasses others. The world is a serious place for Benedict – I just want to know, might this not be a place where the light of laughter could help?

2.  Nothing harsh or burdensome?

We are, therefore, about to found a school of the Lord’s service, in which we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome  (p. 23)

He has the best of intentions – to “preserve charity” and “correct vices” but his Rule seems quite harsh at times.  For example…

Whenever, therefore, boys or immature youths or such as can not understand how grave a penalty excommunication is, are guilty of a serious fault, let them undergo severe fasting or be disciplined with corporal punishment, that they may be corrected.  (P. 214-215)

Oh the other hand, I guess if you are convinced that the immortal souls entrusted to your care are in peril then even beatings start to seem acceptable.

3.  Personal ownership – I mention this instruction in this lower section not because I have questions about the instruction itself – it makes sense in the context of a monastic community.

The vice of personal ownership must by all means be cut out in the monastery by the very root…  Let all things be common to all, as it is written.  And let no one call or take to himself anything as his own (cf. Acts 4:32)

My question is whether/how this practice of the earliest followers of Jesus ought to be practiced by those of us on the outside.

The draw to keep ones options open is strong and living by a Rule can sound archaic and needlessly restrictive.  Clearly it isn’t the choice of most of my friends in Boston.  But what if it makes way for us to embrace what the Apostle Paul called, “the life that is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:19)?  Maybe the “Little Rule for Beginners” is worth a second look?

Book 7 – I Once Was Lost: What Postmodern Skeptics Taught Us About Their Path to Jesus

Every three years all the InterVarsity staff meet in St. Louis for several days to pray, worship and learn together. Why we do it there – during the coldest days of the year – is a long story. But I want to say that I really love it. The main reason is that I get to meet and learn from staff colleagues like Don and Doug – that’s where I first heard their ideas about engaging their friends and talking about Jesus.

As I listened to their stories and looked at their diagrams, I realized that their description mapped well onto the journeys of many of my friends who had become followers of Jesus. It made sense to me then; and having read the book and thought about it a lot since then, it still does.

This is a book for followers of Jesus who want to know how to speak helpfully and relevantly to their friends about Jesus. In some ways, it’s an old-fashioned book about evangelism – replete with thresholds that we hope our friends will cross.

Thinking back to Carl’s book and others along the way that disparage the word evangelism, I think it is important to highlight what these guys do that is different from most evangelists. The difference is in how they think about what the threshold framework means and how it is used:

We offer it as a discernment tool, something to help you ask good questions. As you seek God for wisdom about what your non-Christian friends need, you are in a great learning posture. Our hope is that as you use this tool with the Lord and your community to understand your non-Christian friends and neighbors more clearly, you will grow in servant evangelism. (p. 132)

The reality is we each need to make a decision to serve our non-Christian friends. Just because we understand more clearly what post-modern folks need in their journey, it does not necessarily follow that we will give them what they need. (p. 133)

Their hearts are for their friends and, like their forbearer the Apostle Paul, they are inclined to become all things so that their friends can take whatever step is their next toward Jesus.


1. Don and Doug remind us that it is mysterious thing to come to Jesus – process isn’t linear or merely logical. I’m glad they say this at the beginning to underscore the need for prayer.

2. The thresholds that Don and Doug have identified make sense to me:

Trusting a Christian:  distrust -> trust

Wondering about Jesus:  apathetic -> curious

Opening up to Change: closed -> open

Seeking after God: meandering -> seeking

Entering the Kingdom: lost -> saved

They identify where the challenge lies and suggest ways to really help. Asking pointed questions and praying specific prayers is the path forward.

3. I like this question:

How can we be good friends (and farmers) during this part of our friends’ journeys? Is it possible to help people open up to change? Are there ways we can walk alongside our friends as they face the steep, difficult, spiritually charged hill in front of them? (p. 70)

4. I liked their chart (p. 91-2) for thinking about answering questions (ATTIC) – an interesting spin on traditional apologetics that they have found more helpful to postmodern skeptics.

Affirm – Bless their curiosity

Translate – Express the abstract in relationship to your own life

Transparent – Be confessional about your own struggle

Insert yourself as a case study – Personalize the question to yourself

Challenge – So what about you?


1. As with others who have written about faith development (James Fowler, M. Scott Peck, Dave Schmelzer, Richard Rohr, etc.) Don and Doug’s framework charts a course that it true for many but not all. I always have trouble mapping my own faith journey onto these frameworks. It makes it hard for me to speak personally and confessionally about my own path to Jesus.

2. At several places (especially at Threshold 3) Don and Doug encourage initiative – even bold initiative – to help our friends “connect the dots,” “reframe events” (p. 80), get “unstuck” and move into the next frame. Of course we see Jesus doing this in the Gospels, right? And while I can think of many people who have done this for me at different times, it still makes me nervous. While I may have some insight and be helpful in interpreting their situation – e.g. “I think God is trying to get your attention…” (p. 81) – I don’t want to suggest more than God is actually saying.

Earlier in the book they affirm asking questions:

Jesus is asked 183 questions in the Gospels. He answers just 3 of them—and he asks 307 questions back! (p. 54)

A seminary professor we know says, “A good question is worth a thousand answers.” Sometimes when someone asks us a question, an answer is the last thing they need. Instead, they need someone to stoke the fire of curiosity in their soul. (p. 55)

Sounds about right to me. And true for me no less than for my friends.

Book 6 – Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived

I’d watched some of his Nooma videos, but had never seen Rob Bell in person ’till he came to the Somerville Theatre a couple years ago. A friend had called earlier that day to say that Rob was in town and that Tara & I might want to get tickets and check him out.

Even before we got there, I knew something was up. For starters, there was no publicity – none. I couldn’t find it on the internet and there was no lettering on the marquee above the entrance. At the ticket office we were told that it was sold out but we could buy a “standing room only” ticket and watch from the back. The crowd inside was interesting – definitely not from the church scene around Boston. There was a lot of leather and many people was wearing black – artists, punks, musicians… Nobody moved for the next 70+ minutes as he told stories about altars and sacrifice and how the God of the Bible looks different from every other God ever worshiped. I was hooked – both by his style and by the way he told the story.

I didn’t know how controversial his latest book had become until I looked for it at and realized that, though they have Rob’s other books and videos for sale, they aren’t selling Love Wins. Ok…

I bought the book on Amazon and read it.


1.  Rob asks a lot of questions – there are literally hundreds in this little book. More than that, he pushes back on the answers we’ve all heard when they don’t really fit with the witness of the text. At times this is uncomfortable – but also good. It encourages those of us who read and love the text to really own and deal with these ideas honestly. Rob doesn’t do in depth exegesis of the text but does spend time on a few important passages (Luke 15 – the two sons and the waiting father, Luke 16 – the rich man and Lazarus, Luke 18 – the “rich young ruler,” Revelation 21 – the new Jerusalem, Exodus 17 – Moses and the rock, etc…). Each of these are incomplete but are fertile ground for further study.

2.  He challenges the followers of Jesus to “seek the kingdom of Heaven” to pursue it here and now.  He gives a list of suggestions on page 46:

Honest business,

redemptive art,

honorable law,

sustainable living,



making a home,

tending a garden–

they’re all sacred tasks to be done in partnership with God now, because they will all go on in the age to come.

in heaven,

on earth.

3.  His translation of Aion as “eternal” suggests more than just a length of time, i.e. “forever.” Instead, it points to a particular “quality and vitality of  life lived now in connection to God.”

Eternal life doesn’t start when we die;

it starts now.

It’s not about a life that begins at death;

it’s about experiencing the kind of life now that can

endure and survive even death. (p. 59)

4.  On hell – as with heaven c.f. The Great Divorce, Rob says that that hell is both a present and a future reality – and it is something that is chosen:

What we see in the Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus is an affirmation that there are all kinds of hells, because there are all kinds of ways to resist and reject all that is good and true and beautiful and human now, in this life and so we can assume we can do the same in the next.

There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.  (p. 79)

God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free. (p. 72)

5.  I love Rob’s phrase the gospel of goats (p. 182). It’s a sort of shocking image right? A picture of the scarcity mentality embraced by some, who like the older brother (Luke 15), won’t join the party that the Father is throwing for his son who has come home. They have been “slaving all these years” and haven’t even gotten a goat (an animal he points out doesn’t even have that much meat!) so they can celebrate with their friends. Yes, this is toxic. “This is why,” he says (p. 179), “Christians who talk the most about going to heaven while everybody else goes to hell don’t throw very good parties.”


1.  I’ve thought a bit about Rob’s suggestion that there may be a time after death during which God’s persistent loving pursuit engages those who have previously rejected his call. He even mentions a letter (p. 106) from Martin Luther himself as evidence that God could do it. I think it is a compelling idea and I hope that this is the way it works. But I just don’t read it in the Bible. In fact, Luke 16 suggests that, at least for those who have Moses and the Prophets, another witness isn’t going to help anyway. It’s like Lewis suggests in The Great Divorce—the choice which the damned spirits make to reject heaven is merely the summation of choices they have made their whole life long. Why, having lived their life with every choice made in a certain groove, in response to another invitation after death, would they choose now to yield to joy?

2.  In addressing the uniqueness of Jesus for God’s redemptive work in the world, Rob underscores John’s statement in 14:6, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” However in place of exclusivity or inclusivity Rob proposes something he calls exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity (p. 155) Basically, this is saying that nobody is saved apart from Jesus but how this works is unclear. It may be that many people of other faith traditions – “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland” could be saved by Jesus apart from knowing or coming to Jesus. Here again, it is a compelling idea that I don’t find in the invitations of Jesus in the Gospels to leave all and follow him.

3.  Rob suggests that our process of being fitted for heaven isn’t concluded as the bass in Handel’s Messiah sings, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye…” Instead, he says “our heart, our character, our desires, our longings—those things take time.” (p. 51) I don’t know about that but my wife is not going to be happy about this.

Book 5 – The Great Divorce

I first read The Great Divorce when I was in college – it was an undergraduate special course that was offered mainly as an excuse to read C.S. Lewis. Seeking any relief I might find from engineering problem sets I dove in and loved every minute.

I heard then that Lewis thought his best fiction book was Till We Have Faces. That book is remarkable. But this one, The Great Divorce, remains my favorite – Here’s why…

Lewis says there is a choice to make and how we choose really matters.

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened. (p. 90)

In the book, Lewis introduces us to a bunch of ghosts who live in hell, who struggle first to get on the bus from heaven to hell, and then with the invitation to stay in heaven. He writes about young lovers, an artist, a businessman, a theologian, a bereaved mother, a seductress, a domineering wife.

What is remarkable are the number of different reasons that each of these ghosts have for resisting heaven and returning to hell. The various ways they get stuck are simultaneously funny (if you like dark humor) and tragic. At times I found myself speaking out loud to them, urging them to chose joy. But in nearly every case they chose hell because, as Lewis quotes Milton:

The choice of every lost soul can be expressed in the words, “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” (p. 86)


1. Heaven (p. 52) is the “land not of questions but of answers, and you shall see the face of God.”

2. You can’t bring hell with you into heaven. In fact, whatever is not of heaven has to be killed first. Anything – esteem for our God-given talents, desire to know the truth, and even the love of a mother – can become a corrupted idol in need of conversion.

3. The declaration of the shining spirit (p. 54) “We know nothing of religion here: we think only of Christ.” Carl would like that!

3. Hell is small, insubstantial and going from gray to black. Heaven is big, solid and is going from dawn to brilliant day. The description of the gray city where you can have anything by merely imagining it is brilliant and terrifying.

4. The idea of a theological society in hell (p. 56) just cracks me up as does the reference to Napoleon (p. 23) rattling around in his mansion millions of miles away from his closest neighbors.


There’s only one thing that slightly troubles me about the book – the images of heaven and hell. I realize that Lewis isn’t trying to paint any sort of picture of heaven and hell that might correspond with what might actually be there. That being said, I still have a question about his description. In particular:

• Heaven is pristine wilderness – hell is a dirty city.
• Heaven is above in the sky – hell is down below.
It’s not that I don’t find this description compelling – it is! What troubles me that it doesn’t seem biblical and seems to fit in with the general impression that the city is bad and the country is good. Similarly, it contributes to the belief that God’s ultimate plan is to take us out of this place “way beyond the blue,” as I remember singing in Sunday school.

The Bible tells a different story. Rather than taking his people out of the planet, God’s intention is to renew the earth. It doesn’t happen somewhere in the sky, but right here. Nature is renewed and the earth is restored (Romans 8).

It also doesn’t just happen in the country. In fact the main event seems to be the descent of the city of God – the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21) on the earth. I remember hearing Dennis Bakke saying on numerous occasions, “The Bible began in a garden but it ends in a city. You have an urban future whether you like it or not.”

At the same time I can’t imagine how even C.S. Lewis could write those ideas into the text in a way that seems as beautiful as lines like these…

…the solitude was so vast that I could hardly notice the knot of phantoms in the foreground. Greenness and light has almost swallowed them up. But very far away I could see what might be either a great bank of cloud or a range of mountains. Sometimes I could make out in it steep forests, far withdrawing valleys, and even mountain cities perched on inaccessible summits. At other times it became indistinct. The height was so enormous that my waking sight could not have taken in such an object at all. Light brooded on the top of it: slanting down thence it made long shadows behind every tree on the plain. There was no change an no progression as the hours passed. The promise—or the treat—of sunrise rested immovably up there. (p. 36)

Book 4 – Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense

The book we read this week may be called Simply Christian but if you read it with me you’ll probably agree that it isn’t simple. Amazing, Yes! Simple, No.

There is a reason that N.T. Wright is called the C.S. Lewis for the post-modern generation. He has written more books (lots of BIG THICK books) and papers about Jesus than I could read in a dozen summers and is engaged in the conversation about what it all means with both skeptics and believers from all around the world.

I first met him when he was the biblical scholar and teacher at our InterVarsity national conference for graduate students and faculty in 1998. Since then he’s been with us at Harvard on many occasions – most recently as a speaker for a series in 2008 we called Reconstructing Hope (scroll down on the website, the recordings of those lectures and the question & answer time are worth a listen.)

When he was a visiting professor at Harvard Divinity School a few years ago I had occasion to sit in from time to time on his lectures about Jesus and the Gospels. After each class I felt like we should end the class on our knees in prayer or communion or something – so profound were the ideas, drama, and Christ of the gospel we were being led to encounter. It was just overwhelming.

So, I’m a fan and think that his books and ideas are worth whatever work it takes. I’m not the only one. Each of the books we’re read this summer have more than traces of Wright’s ideas. Of course, you could say they are all reading the same Bible but I know that Carl, James and Brian are all fans too. Not primarily fans of N.T. Wright but rather of the One whose kingdom he is inviting us to embrace.


1. Putting the World to Rights. It isn’t the way I talk but I love the phrase and the idea. Something is wrong and God intends to set it right.

2. While it is not conclusive, the discussion in the fist part about Echos is helpful. He says that our longings for Justice, Spirituality, Relationship, and Beauty all point to something – to someone – who is both the source and fulfillment of all of these. I totally see it and feel it – these impulses seem to come from God. It is interesting, though – only a few of the scholars from China who have been reading this text with me this summer were persuaded. In the last pages in the book he lines out how these echos are renewed and consummated – it is beautiful.

3. God’s sphere and ours overlap, intersect and coincide in different ways at different times. In this regard he references Torah and Temple (p. 132) but also the community of Jesus followers as they gather in witness (p. 134-5), worship (p. 144), prayer (pp. 161-5), and Bible study (p. 187).

4. God’s future leaks back into the present in the lives of those who embrace his coming kingdom – It is happening here and now!

5. I loved his discussion of worship and how it both retells the story of God’s might acts in Scripture and anticipates the kingdom.

6. Chapters 9 (God’s Breath of Life) and 10 (Living by the Spirit) are about the Holy Spirit. Both are beautiful.


1. The thing I found most challenging about the whole book is knowing how to use it. Like I said above, it may be called Simply Christian, but it is far from simple. Virtually every page is loaded with references to other texts or theological ideas that are difficult for people who don’t read this stuff.  I suppose that is just the way it goes, but very few of my skeptical friends would be able to pick up this text and decode it on their own.

2. Chapter 5 (God) was difficult – especially the philosophical section that distinguished pantheism & dualism from his “overlapping and interlocking” description of heaven and earth.  The section on The Name of God seemed confusing to the Chinese scholars in the Bible and Tea Group.

3. In chapter 7 Tom briefly takes on questions related to the trustworthiness of the text – the Gospels in particular. Of course he says that these few pages can’t truly assess “their historical worth,” (p. 99). This disclaimer helped a bit but was undone by his poetic line at the end of the paragraph:

The Jesus who emerges is thoroughly believable as a figure of history, even though the more we look at him, the more we feel once more that we may be staring into the sun.

4. In chapter 8 (Jesus: Rescue and Renewal) Tom draws us into the mystery of Jesus’ own vocation, suffering and self-understanding. Once again, these are big important questions but I worry that his comments only serve to raise more issues than he resolves.

At the end I’ve gotta say that I think this book is a gift. I’m sure I’ll keep coming back and rereading sections in the future. Who knows, someday maybe I’ll tackle his multi-volume Christian Origins and the Question of God. In the meantime, I want to conclude this short reflection by quoting Wright’s soaring answer to the question, “So what is Christianity about, then?” It seems to me almost impossibly beautiful…

Christianity is all about the belief that the living God, in fulfillment of his promises and as the climax of the story of Israel, has accomplished all this—the finding, the saving, the giving of new life—in Jesus. He has done it. With Jesus, God’s rescue operation has been put into effect once and for all. A great door has swung open in the cosmos which can never again be shut. It’s the door to the prison where we’ve been kept chained up. We are offered freedom: freedom to experience God’s rescue of ourselves, to go through the open door and explore the new world to which we now have access. In particular, we are all invited—summoned, actually—to discover, through following Jesus, that this new world is indeed a place of justice, spirituality, relationship, and beauty, and that we are not only to enjoy it as such but to work at bringing it to birth on earth as in heaven. In listening to Jesus, we discover whose voice it is that has echoed around the hearts and minds of the human race all along.


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