We’re Not in the Jaws of It.

I’m reading this book.

Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, by Francis Spufford.

(serious points go to both the name of the book AND the name of the author)

I picked up this book on a recommendation from Rob Bell.
If Rob read it, and loved it, I’m going to bank on sharing that love as well.

And sure enough it is proving to be my favorite read so far this year. So many incredible insights from Francis Spufford, a Brit who is writing to mostly a British audience on why he still thinks Christianity is legit.

In his chapter “Hello, Cruel World,” Francis muses on the reality of evil in the world. Not an altogether new topic, by any means. But I found his takes refreshing.

After dismantling all the common theodicies (theologies of why there’s evil in the world), Francis finally offers the following thought:

How, then, do we deal with suffering? How do we resolve the contradiction between cruel world and loving God? The short answer is that we don’t. We don’t even try to, mostly. Most Christian believers don’t spend their time and their emotional energy stuck at this point of contradiction. For most of us, worrying about it turns out to have been a phase in the early history of our belief. The question of suffering proves to be one of those questions which is replaced by other questions, rather than being answered. We moved on from it, without abolishing the mystery, or seeing clear conceptual ground under our feet. Cataclysmic experiences can pitch us back into it of course, but mostly they don’t. Even in bad times we usually don’t go back there. We take the cruelties of the world as a given, as the known and familiar data of experience, and instead of anguishing about why the world is as it is, we look for comfort in coping with it as it is. We don’t ask for a creator who can explain Himself. We ask for a friend in time of grief, a true judge in time of perplexity, a wider hope than we can manage in time of despair. If your child is dying, there is no reason that can ease your sorrow. Even if, impossibly, some true and sufficient explanation could be given you, it wouldn’t help any more than the inadequate and defective explanations help you, whether they are picture-book simple or inscrutably contorted. The only comfort that can do anything – and probably the most it can do, is help you to endure, or if you cannot endure, to fail an fold without wholly hating yourself – is the comfort of feeling yourself loved. Given the cruel world, it’s the love song we need, to help us bear what we must; and, if we can, to go on loving.

We don’t forget, mind. It doesn’t escape us that there seems to be something wrong with any picture in which God’s in His heaven and all’s well with the world. We still know that if He can help us and He doesn’t, He isn’t worth worshipping; and that if He doesn’t help us because He can’t, there must be something weirdly limited about the way He’s the God of everything. The impasse is still there. It’s just that we’re not in the jaws of it. We’re not being actively gripped and chewed by it. Our feelings have moved on elsewhere.

Aaahh… yes.

The impasse is still there. It’s just that we’re not in the jaws of it.

I have found that to be true, my friends.
I gave a sermon several years back called Hidden for Ages, and I similarly described how even if we could receive an answer, an explanation, to why certain bad things happen, then it ultimately won’t satisfy us. It won’t help. Not really. So God invites us to embrace mystery, and to lean in to the everlasting and ever-loving arms of God.

Sounds trite, perhaps.
I know.

But it’s real.

Well, for me anyways.

And Francis.

 

Cross Examined: An Unconventional Spiritual Journey (Review)

Crazy Christian or Annoying Atheist: Our Only Two Options?

Apologetics is the discipline of defending a position through the systematic use of information. Within Christianity there has often been great excitement and enthusiasm for the world of apologetics because, on some level, it feels really good to be able to “prove” what you believe.

Cross Examined is written by professed atheist Bob Seidensticker (who blogs over at Patheos.com), and it serves in some degree to be an apologetic against Christianity. I suppose one could call it an atheist-apologetic, but I’m not sure it’s as much that as it is “here’s why I think Christianity (and God) is bogus.”

Using the fictional narrative tool to get his points across, Bob tells the story of a young man named Paul who becomes torn between two mentors: an eccentric, overbearing, uber-religious preacher named Samuel, and a jaded, home-bound recluse, skeptic atheist named Jim. Paul seems to want to stay connected to Samuel and to the church and to the faith that saved him from the destructive and criminal path he was on. But when he strikes up an unconventional friendship with Jim he discovers that the “faith” that was given to him (by Samuel) seems markedly weak and thin when held up to criticism and “facts.”

So Cross Examined explores this unconventional spiritual journey in a relaxed and easy to read way. I was appreciative of the narrative approach, even if it got in the way at times. Overall the book was an enjoyable read, and here are a few thoughts I have about it:

What I Liked

There is a strain of Christianity (of which I grew up in, and was well versed) that remains painfully simple. But its simplicity is, perhaps, its own downfall. The Bible is viewed as a plain and easy to read and easy to understand textbook, full of answers to all life’s questions. Verses can be read, understood, and applied at face value, as though it were written exactly to me, for me, in 2013. Critical thought is generally frowned upon, because it has the potential to cast doubt, and doubt is to be avoided at all costs! Apologetics is a straight-foward exercise of making sure you have all the right answers. There are packaged arguments  designed to prove the existence of God, the reliability of the Bible, the divinity of Jesus, and so on. In fact my entire life was changed because of one conference I went to in High School where the sole purpose was to teach High School students apologetics, and help us learn to “witness” (argue) to our peers about Jesus, the Bible and God.

This strain of Christianity is characterized by (if not caricatured by) Pastor Samuel.

Early in the book, Samuel hosts a debate with an atheist wherein he proceeds to completely destroy his foe. The atheist is made to look a fool because he could not answer Samuel’s amazing insight and “proofs” of God’s existence. Many readers familiar with traditional apologetics would probably find this debate pretty typical of what they were told to expect should they ever engage with an atheist. The more seasoned reader would be laughing at the absurdity of it all, but that was Bob’s point: to expose this strain of Christianity for being pompous in its simplicity and over confident in its truthiness.

And this was one of the best parts about Cross Examined for me. Someone who has not thought critically about their faith, about the Bible, about God and Jesus, would read this book and likely be in for a rude awakening. Because there do exist really good reasons to NOT believe in God, to not believe the reliability of the Bible, to not believe in Jesus, etc.

Paul’s conversations with Jim do a pretty decent job of undermining much of Christian Apologetics. And the issues he raises, the questions he asks, the points he makes, are all things that the Christian needs to hear. Needs to acknowledge. Needs to be aware of.

However, similar to the way that the atheist who first debated Samuel came across as a stupid atheist who couldn’t answer anything intelligently (thus falsely bolstering Samuel’s “apologetics,”) I felt that Paul’s conversations with the “smart atheist” Jim were equally fashioned. Which leads me to…

What I Didn’t Like

I thought Jim (the character who, I imagine, represents the author’s own POV) got off the hook too easily. His arguments in favor of atheism were met with Paul’s naiveté, or just plain ignorance. Yes, there were some good points. And yes, the critical atheist can poke some major holes in Christian apologetics, but it came across as though Jim’s perspective, then, was the ONLY obvious choice when faced with the “facts.”

And then the book ends with Paul, basically, coming to the conclusion that in order for him to continue to be Christian he would have to essentially check his brain at the door and proceed with his heart only. Meaning, sure, be a Christian, but you do so IN SPITE of all the overwhelming evidence against you. And you do so, now, as a choice against reason. You’re choosing to believe, to have faith, when deep down you really know it’s a sham.

I’ve got a problem with that.

I’ve got a problem with the dualism communicated in Cross Examined.
It felt like, according to the author, to be a Christian either means A) you’re an overconfident, arrogant, ignorant chump like Samuel who clings to old arguments and refuses to think critically about your faith, or B) you abandon reason and logic and “the facts” and choose to believe anyways.

Actually (and not surprisingly, if you know me), I think there is another way forward.

I think you can actually come face to face with some of the harshest criticism of God, Jesus, the Bible and Christianity, and discover NOT that they are altogether worthless, but that the certain way you’ve always thought about them might be flawed.

The God/Jesus/Bible that Jim doesn’t believe in? Neither do I.
Nor, for that matter, do I believe in the God/Jesus/Bible of Samuel.

But the author sets it up as either/or.

I think, if you read this book, you could listen to Jim’s arguments and say, “hmmm… you’re right… there are really good reasons to NOT believe in the Bible in THAT way…” But this is not the same thing as saying that there isn’t another, more compelling and more reasonable and logical way, to believe in the Bible.

So ultimately I think Bob Seidensticker did nothing more than swing the pendulum to the other side in his apologetic of atheism.

Who Should Read This Book

If you are a Christian who thinks you’ve got really good answers to defend (or even PROVE) your faith in God, Jesus and the Bible, then you should read this book.

Because chances are, you might not have the “proof” you think you have.

If you are curious about what atheists think about Christianity, then this is a fun and whimsical glimpse.

If you love being challenged in your faith… pushed, prodded and poked… forced to really ask yourself, “do I REALLY believe this?” then I would recommend Cross Examined.

I give it 3.5 stars out of 5.

Follow Friday: Rachel Held Evans Reviews “Torn”

“Torn: Rescuing the Gospel from the Christians versus Gays Debate” is the newest book from Justin Lee. Justin is the director of The Gay Christian Network, and has done some remarkable ministry over the years to both the LGBT community AND to the church world that doesn’t jive with gay people well.

Rachel Held Evans (author of NYT Bestseller, A Year of Biblical Womanhood) is a prolific blogger who is really leading the way for a lot of young people who are disenfranchised with the evangelical Christianity they grew up with, but aren’t ready to walk away from it all just yet.

This year, on her blog, she has undertaken the goal of talking more about sexuality.
And I, for one, am both STOKED for her, and AFRAID for her.

She will, I’m sure, do an amazing job of navigating these sometimes cumbersome (and always controversial) issues. I invite you to join me in following along.

First up, she begins reviewing Justin Lee’s “Torn.

Follow along, won’t you?

Tri-Awesomeness

Andrew Peterson

Harry Potter Books

Fresco of Jesus

Like my wife says, “Three of my favorite things converge together: Andrew Peterson, Harry Potter, and Jesus.”

If you like any of those three I invite you to read this fantastic blog by singer-songwriter/author Andrew Peterson, and his thoughts on the Harry Potter series.

Among other awesome things he says, he writes this pretend letter to Potter author, J.K. Rowling and says:

By the way, I’m a follower of Christ, and I see him in your story. I don’t know if that’s intentional or not, but you should know that he’s in there. In fact, it wouldn’t be a huge stretch to say that reading your books has helped me to praise him even more for his courage, his sacrifice, and his strength to conquer the hosts of hell to save us.

To which I offer a resounding AMEN!

I have fallen in love with the Potter series over the past 10 years, and ardently defend it against those who would believe it is somehow evil or inherently wrong for Christians to read. These sorts of statements merely come out of ignorance, so I try not to get too worked up. Nonetheless, they are beautiful books, an amazing story, like Peterson says, Jesus is in those stories.

 

Satan’s Newest Book, Out This Fall

Back in March, quasi-controversial Pastor Rob Bell released a fully-controversial book titled Love Wins. In it, Bell asked questions pertaining to heaven, hell, and the fate of everyone who ever lived. Thanks to a couple blogs and tweets before the book was even released, a maelstrom of words commenced, causing quite the stir.

Love Wins, by Rob Bell

Today, another book is released by a much less controversial Pastor Francis Chan titled Erasing Hell. In this 9 minute promo video Chan references recent interest in hell, and pleads for people to differentiate between “what God said about eternity and the things we made up.” While not specifically calling out Love Wins, one can’t help but make the connection.

Erasing Hell, by Francis Chan

And so, in this current climate of conversation swirling around the topic of hell, one might be curious to think what the gatekeeper of hell himself might be thinking. Fortunately, our curiosity will not be left out in the cold.

Jumping on the hell-bandwagon is the tour guide himself, Lucifer. Having just finished his latest book, Erasing Love: Hell Wins, the Ol’ Devil seeks to capitalize on people’s current interest in all things pertaining to his homeland.

Erasing Love: Hell Wins, by Lucifer

I got the privilege this week of sitting down with the Ancient Deceiver to ask him some questions about his upcoming release. A modified transcript is below.

 

Me: Lucifer, thanks for taking some time in your busy schedule to sit down with me and discuss your upcoming book, Erasing Love: Hell Wins.

Lucifer: My pleasure. I have a soft spot for the online world, and blogs have been of particular interest to me. In fact, back in April I released Devil’s Ink, a collection of some of my most recent blog entries.

Me: So if you just released a book three months ago, why Erasing Love now? Are you worried about over-saturating the market?

Lucifer: No, no… Not at all. I’ve found there are always people out there interested in what I’m doing. Besides, I would be a bloody-fool (Ed note: I was surprised Lucifer had a British accent. Or was I…) to miss this incredible opportunity.

Me: Opportunity? How so?

Lucifer: People right now are desperate to hear about my home. They want to know if it is real. They want to know what it’s like. They’re interested in whether it will last forever or not. People are hearing all sorts of different ideas that are new to them, and most of them just want to be reassured that what they’ve always thought was true is in fact still true. Others are relieved to hear there might be alternative ways to think about my home. It really is a fabulous time in history for me.

Me: Are you referring to Bell’s Love Wins and Chan’s Erasing Hell? Which, I’ll note, are strikingly similar to your own title. Are you worried about taking heat for your lack of creativity?

Lucifer: First off, I’m never worried about taking heat. That’s a silly question. And secondly, I’ve often been accused of not being able to “create anything on my own.” People have long enjoyed mocking me for being one who has to borrow (and in their minds, distort) that which is already created. I can’t ultimately say they are untrue in these regards, but I always say the essence of creativity is knowing what’s good enough to copy.

Me: So you thought Love Wins and Erasing Hell were good, then?

Lucifer: Don’t be ridiculous. Of course they are not good. They’re both garbage and full of lies. My point is, they built up incredible momentum regarding my hometown, and I’d be a fool to not capitalize on that.

Me: So tell me what Erasing Love: Hell Wins is about?

Lucifer: The basic premise of the book is this: if I can succeed in removing that vile thing called “love” from the day to day reality of people’s lives, then I win. If I can erase love, then the realities of hate, envy, revenge and pride will emerge. And those are my bread and butter. I win in those moments when love is absent. I win when love does not.

Me: That sounds rather passive for you. Rather than try to infect or infuse the world with hate and vengeance, unforgiveness and betrayal, you want to just erase something?

Lucifer: I learned long ago that you cannot manufacture darkness. Darkness is, unfortunately, only a result of the absent of light. I can’t make darkness. It just doesn’t work (believe me, I’ve tried). But what I can do is remove light. And when I remove light, darkness naturally emerges. So in this book I discuss the strategies of removing love. Where people pursue peace I want to make it feel impossible so that they give up… love is erased. Where people start to have forgiveness rise in their hearts I remind them of how they were hurt and how good bitterness feels… love is erased. When people start to work for justice I put obstacles in their way or tempt them to use their money on things for themselves… love is erased. It’s brilliant, really… and quite simple.

Me: What concerns you most? What bothers you to the point where you’d write this book?

Lucifer: Well first, I fear nothing. (Ed note: at this point I remind myself this guy is the Father of Lies. There’s no way I believe this one). But if you were to force me to share something, I would probably say that if Followers of the Enemy actually believed what he said about them, then I am in a whole lot of trouble.

Me: Meaning what?

Lucifer: You Followers really are dense, aren’t you? Your King (Ed note: he more spit this word out than he did say it) told you that the world would know you were Followers if you “loved one another.” And I just can’t have that. If you all start doing that, I’m toast.

Me: I thought heat wasn’t a problem for you.

Lucifer: Don’t interrupt me! If you and the rest of your kind stop drawing lines in the sand, stop taking sides and dividing, stop picking one personality to follow and demonizing all others (although I do like this behavior), if you start to actually love one another and seek harmony with the other Followers, then my game is up. I lose. People will start to see me for who I am, and as much as I love myself I can’t ultimately see that as a good thing. I need you to fight and argue. I need you to call people heretics and take sides. I need you to write nasty things on your blogs behind a veil of anonymity. I need you to pick the smallest issues and decide you MUST agree on them. I need to win, and in order to that, I need to erase love!

Me: Hence your book.

Lucifer: Hence it indeed…

Me: Well, Lucifer, I’d like to thank you again for your time. Any last thoughts before we wrap this up?

Lucifer: Let me add this. I am fully aware that your Book seems to think that in the end I lose. That in the end I get tossed in to some Lake of Fire (as though that should scare me?). Be that as it may, I intend to damage as much of the Enemy’s goods while I can. I may not win the war, but I bloody well mean to win as many battles as I can. And I win every time love loses. I win every time no one defends the widows and the orphans. I win every time a husband breaks his vow to love, cherish and respect his wife till death parts them. I win every time a person’s name is slandered behind their back and no one stands up for them. I win every time violence is used in pursuit of power, or revenge, or even peace. So just know this, if Love gets Erased, Hell Wins, I win, every time.

Me: For once, I think I believe you.

 

Look for Erasing Love: Hell Wins to be released in early fall, 2011.

Jesus in Revelation

Typical understanding of Jesus in Revelation

I’ve been reading Brian McLaren’s newest book, “A New Kind of Christianity,” and I was very moved and encouraged by some of his thoughts on Jesus in relation to how he is portrayed in the book of Revelation.

I’d love to give you the full context and background of his thoughts, but I’ll just let you buy the book and read it for yourself. But I DO want to share this bit with you because I found it brilliant and challenging.

He (Brian) is addressing one of his critics who accused him of recasting Jesus as a “limp-wrist hippie, with a lot of product in his hair who drank decaf and made pity Zen statements about life while shopping for the perfect pair of shoes.”

Brian’s critic countered with the following characterization of who HE thinks Jesus is:

“In Revelation, Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tatoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”

To which I say, “Why the Face?!?!” (Don’t get that reference? Check it out here…)

But, moving on.. Brian then quotes the Revelation passage the above critic was referring to, 19:11-16

11I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war.12His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on himthat no one knows but he himself.13He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God.14The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen,white and clean.15Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty.16On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS.

Brian then goes on to offer a different way to understand this passage. You’ll have to get the book for that… But I would like to share then his thoughts about how contradictory it would be to view Jesus in Revelation as his critic above does (and many others, even if it’s not so crude and outright) in light of who Jesus was and what he said during his earthly ministry. It’s fairly long, but worth the read…

To repeat, Revelation is not portraying Jesus returning to earth in the future, having repented of his naive gospel ways and having converted to Casesar’s “realistic” Greco-Roman methods instead. He hasn’t gotten discouraged about Caesar seeming to get the upper hand after his resurrection and on that basis concluded that it’s best to live by the sword after all (Matt. 26:52). Jesus hasn’t abandoned the way of peace (Luke 19:42) and concluded the way of Pilate is better, mandating that his disciples should fight after all (John 18:36). He hasn’t had second thoughts about all that talk about forgiveness (Matt 18:21-22) and concluded that on the 78th offense (or 491st, depending on interpretation), you should pull out your sword and hack off your offender’s head rather than turn the other cheek (Matt 5:39).

He hasn’t given up on that “love your enemies” stuff (Matt 5:44) and judged it naive and foolish after all (1 Cor 1:25), concluding instead that God’s strength is made manifest not in weakess but in crushing domination (2 Cor 12:9). He hasn’t had a change of heart, concluding that the weapons he needs are physical after all (2 Cor 10:3-4) or that the enemies of the kingdom are flesh and blood after all (Eph 6:12), which would mean that the way to glory isn’t actually by dying on the cross (Phil 2:8,9), but rather by nailing others on it.

He hasn’t sold the humble donkey (Luke 19:30-35) on eBay and purchased chariots, warhorses, tanks, land mines, and B-1s instead (Zech. 9:9-10). He hasn’t climbed back to the top of the temple and decided he made a mistake the first time (Matt 4:1-10), or concluded that from now on he’d be smarter to follow Peter’s Greco-Roman “human” strategies (Matt 16:23). He hasn’t decided that the message of the cross is a little too foolish after all (1 Cor 1:18) or that Christ killing his foes is way more exciting than that lame, absurd “hippie” gospel of “Christ crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).

He hasn’t decided that my loyal critic was right, that nobody can be expected to worship a king they can beat up (Matt 27:27). He hasn’t decided that a tattoo down his leg would look a whole lot toughter and macho than scars in his hands, feet, and side (John 20:27). He hasn’t decided to defect to the Greco-Roman narrative, since the majority of people who claim adherence to the religion that bears his name seem to frame their lives by it rather than by his good news of the kingdom of God.

Revelation celebrates not the love of power, but the power of love. It denies, with all due audacity, that God’s anointed liberator is the Divine Terminator, threatening revenge for all who refuse to honor him, growling “I’ll be back!” It asserts, instead, that God’s anointed liberator is the one we beat up, who promises mercy to those who strike him, whispering, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The suffering, serving one who bled on a cross–not the one with a commitment to make others suffer and bleed–is the King of kings and Lord of lords. In response to the crucified one’s name–not Caesar’s or any other violent human’s–every knee will gladly bow.

You may or may not agree with all the points above, but hopefully the big picture is something worth considering. If we DO anticipate Jesus returning to destroy and crush people, then we must wrestle with how that can line up with all that he did and taught. Will he, in the end, change his mind about the way of peace, mercy, forgiveness and grace?

New Brian McLaren Book is Almost Out

Just four days left until Brian McLaren’s newest book, “A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the Faith” is released!

McLaren’s work (especially A New Kind of Christian, Generous Orthodoxy, and The Secret Message of Jesus) has been monumental to me in sifting through what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I’m indebted to his work and passion for seeing the Dream of God (aka, His Kingdom) be accomplished on earth as it is in Heaven.

I’m also grateful he got a new artist to design his cover… His last few have left much to be desired…

For more info on Brian, you can check out his blog here.