Monthly Archives: July 2011

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 christianbook.com 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.

THINGS I LIKED

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,

medicine,

education,

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.”

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

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)

THINGS I LIKED

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.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

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.

THINGS I LIKED

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.

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

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.


Book 3 – The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything

Brian McLaren observes that what American Christians put forward as Gospel (Good News) about Jesus bears little resemblance to what Jesus himself said was Good News. I believe he is right and the implications for, not just the followers of Jesus, but the whole world are profound.

If evangelists understood and embraced what he calls the Secret Message of Jesus they would tell a very different story and engage the world in very different and much more transformative ways.

In many ways The Secret Message of Jesus continues the conversation that James Choung brought us last week. Namely that the gospel according to Jesus is:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. (Mark 1:15 ESV)

The rest of the book articulates what this kingdom is, how it is announced, who it’s citizens are, and where it is going. Virtually every page challenged my imagination and invited me to take a fresh look at what Jesus was actually saying. I loved it!

THINGS I LIKED

Several phrases stuck out and are helping me reframe the message of Jesus and my own response:

1. I really like what he says about worldview (p. 77) – Not just that it is a “way of seeing,” but his advice that we are “wiser to immerse ourselves in Jesus’ worldview rather than drag him into ours.” Jesus worldview is better than ours (p. 87). The story he tells about an imaginary TV reporter in Chapter 7 is brilliant.

2. Eternal Life he says (p. 63) doesn’t refer to “life after death” burt rather “an extraordinary life to the full centered in a relationship with God.” Naturally, this sort of life would continue on and on, but the focus is on life here and now.

3. Signs and Wonders are real “touches of God’s grace” (p. 82) and serve to free us from the Tyranny of the Impossible – I LOVE that phrase! He describes the significance this way:

But when the kingdom of God comes near, when we experience it, the word impossible deconstructs. It melts and evaporates, and its tyranny over us ends. (p. 83)

He says that signs and wonders are a sign of the kingdom – namely that the King is present (at hand) working all around us from the inside.

4. The purpose of parables is to hide the message (p. 71-74). Jesus says this plainly in Mark 4:9-12

Then Jesus said, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”

When he was alone, the Twelve and the others around him asked him about the parables. He told them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been given to you. But to those on the outside everything is said in parables so that,

“‘they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, 
and ever hearing but never understanding; 
otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!’ 

Those of us in InterVarsity tend to draw attention to the danger of being an outsider, emphasizing the importance of asking questions. We say that the secret of the kingdom of God is given to those who ask questions – or maybe, ask questions of Jesus. But Brian suggests that the intention of Jesus is to hide the message in such a way that it transforms hearts.  He keeps it away from the “know-it-alls” who never ask questions and reveals it to those who have nothing but questions, i.e. children. I’m not sure this is good news for me or the people I hang out with at Harvard…

5. The Five Moves for immigration to the kingdom (Chapter 13) are brilliant:

1. Repentance – Hear from the heart and think deeply about what you hear

2. Faith – of believing, of trusting

3. Receptivity

4. Going public with repentance, faith and receptivity – Baptism

5. Learn to follow Jesus every day for the rest of your life

Amen!

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. The scandal of the kingdom (p. 100) is that it needs to fail to succeed. This is a shocking idea and I’m sure he’s right. It reminds me of a talk our faculty advisor Bill Stuntz gave at the Law School a few months before his death. Bill said that God’s law is designed to fail. Spot on!

2. Brian says that it is necessary to exclude from the kingdom – namely those people who are themselves exclusive! At first glance this seems like some sort of logic problem. What he’s saying is that, if someone rejects the fundamental character of God’s inclusive kingdom, for the sake of inclusion, then they must be kept outside the territory and community. This is hard, right? I understand that he is trying to protect those who have come in for reconciliation and want to be reconcilers. At the same time, I wonder where I would be today if my inclusion depended on my satisfying some criteria of inclusiveness.

3. He doesn’t attempt to solve every theological problem around the eschatology of Jesus and some (maybe many) of my friends might be nervous about his  ideas about the future and the end times. He comes down sort of hard on “prognosticators” – and not just those who are looking for the world to end on August 22. It’s not that I have a better summary of Revelation (cf. p. 223). I mostly don’t know how he holds onto hope that the kingdom will someday come (really come) in fullness in the midst of all this realized eschatology.

4. Brian writes that the kingdom isn’t about making people nice – good news for me! – but rather to help them become secret agents of another realm. He goes on to mention a variety of jobs (including military service!) that can be engaged as agents of the kingdom. But what does this really mean? And what jobs are outside the boundaries of kingdom work? Tobacco framing? Brothel management? Partner in a hedge fund? (a friend of mine from the Business School says that today this work is outside what Jesus would approve) I believe this is an area for prayer, honest conversation, mentoring, accountability and Spirit-guided-creativity.

It is true as he said of Jesus’ secret message:

…if we take it in and manage not only to look at it but also to learn to look through it, our world and our lives will look different to us at the end of our exploration. And if that happens deeply enough for enough of us, everything could change. (p. 19).


Book 2 – True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In

James Choung has undertaken a significant project in this little book:

  1. Redefining the gospel
  2. Providing a new napkin-size summary diagram

The challenge is worth it because James observes that a major obstacle the followers of Jesus face in speaking about Him is that the only message they have doesn’t feel like good news. In fact, most Evangelicals describe the gospel almost exclusively in terms related to heaven after they die. There is little or no relationship to the world they see everyday. No real-world benefit in the face of the profound brokenness of the world.

Not only, he says, is today’s gospel largely devoid of substantial good news, it also shares little in common with the gospel that Jesus himself preached – the one articulated in Mark 1:14-15:

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

When’s the last time you read that in a “gospel” tract somebody handed you in the subway station?

If you didn’t get to read the whole book, or if you want to see it in action, you can watch James himself line it out with a Sharpie in a couple of 3- minute videos on YouTube. These are not to be missed. There is also a pocket-sized version from InterVarsity Press cleverly named, Based on a True Story (ha!), that you can give to friends.

THINGS I LIKED

1. It took a little getting used to it, but I ended up liking the conversation format in the first part of the book. There were two separate conversation threads and they worked in two different ways:

• Caleb’s conversations with Professor Shalandra Jones provided opportunity for his own doubts as a confused-but-engaged follower of Jesus to surface and be thoughtfully and compassionately addressed.

• Caleb’s conversations with Anna showed how these ideas could be helpful to those most skeptical about following Jesus.

2. I like his drawings. I’m a visual guy so, if you’re gonna take away my bridge illustration, you’ve gotta come back at me with something else.  I’ve tried these a few times and, though I’m in no way as good as James on the videos, I’ve found them helpful. It’s also fun to draw when you’re chatting, right?

3. I like the three movements that this gospel describes and the invitation that follows.

Decision –> Transformation

Individual –> Community

Afterlife –> Mission Life

Understanding and applying those form the key difference in his invitation to embrace Christ and his revolutionary movement.

4. I liked James’s theological riffs – Seeing him put that doctorate from Fuller to work!  A couple stuck in my mind. First, in the run through Genesis (p. 97-8) Shalandra’s comment that Noah must have seen that first rainbow in the midst of falling rain – something that had previously destroyed every living thing. God’s promise and sign meant he would never have to fear the rain again. The second was his comment on the coming together of heaven and earth seen in the Temple, in Jesus’ body and (finally) in the community of believers. It gave me fresh appreciation for our InterVarsity goal to foster and support witnessing communities. “Guess where earth intersects heaven?” he says, “In the community of believers – where heaven shows up on the planet.” Right on!

THINGS I STILL NEED TO THINK ABOUT

1. Of course most of you will be surprised to hear me say this… I was put off a little by the progressive political viewpoint assumed by the author and the characters in the story. While the dialogue is somewhat believable in the college campus setting (University of Washington in Seattle), and it may be that we’re in a time in our culture where North Americans automatically assume Jesus and his followers are all white Republicans whose political/social agenda revolves entirely around ending abortion and keeping gays from marrying, I thought James piled it on too thick. My friend Professor Bill Stuntz who died this past winter told me shortly after arriving at Harvard Law School that, though he was a center-right conservative, he “leaned to the left whenever he could.”  There is certainly something to that when so many people want to line Jesus up behind their agendas. I only want to make sure we don’t exclude people because they can’t get past our rhetoric or don’t subscribe to Sojourners.

2. I know that Professor Jones highlights the centrality of Jesus death and resurrection in the the dialogue, but it felt like the power of both was insignificant compared to the role of Jesus’ followers who are, in his language, “Sent together to heal.” It would have helped to have him line out more about how his view of the Atonement – Ransom is one meaning he mentions among others – works to “Restore for better” and “Sent us to heal.” The same could be said for the Holy Spirit.

One last thing. James said that his hope (p.12) is that “this book will provide us a simple tool to share the hope that we have – one worth believing in.” He really has done this for me – now if I can get my friends on campus to learn how to draw those circles…


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