Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God (Review)

              What is God truly like?  This is a question I have wrestled with.  My whole life I have heard people say, and have said myself, that God is a God of love and of justice.  Your sin deserves God’s eternal and unending punishment, or wrath.  You can avoid this punishment by trusting in Jesus for in Jesus we see God’s love.  In other words, God shows love to some and wrath to others.

              To hold this understanding leads to some unavoidable questions.  Does Jesus save us from a vengeful God?  Is God’s love offered with a threatening fist raised to punish you if you do not accept?  And if God tortures you for not accepting God’s love, how is God different from an abusive husband?

              As I read Brian Zahnd’s book Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, I felt like I was reading my own questions and struggles.  I deeply resonate with this book, and I almost want to say any Christian who is honest about the tension between God’s wrath and love should too.  Zahnd writes with honesty and passion that lays it all right out there for the reader.  This is not an academic book, nor will it answer every question, especially every question critics are sure to bring to it (though, as a sort of coincidence, I just started reading Greg Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God which is very similar to Zahnd’s work and is more academic, if anyone is interested in that).  I appreciate Zahnd’s honesty for not dancing around the issues.  For example, is it wrong to murder children?  Of course.  Was Hitler wrong to exterminate millions of Jews.  Absolutely.  So why do we then waffle if it is God in scripture who does those things?  Is God a monster to order the extermination of children?  Did millions of Jews pass from Hitler’s ovens to the unending fiery flames of God’s ovens in hell?

              The idea here is one option we have when dealing with God’s wrath.  Maybe God is a monster.  Zahnd rejects this.  The options more Christians might take is that God changes.  God might have commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites but now God has become love.  God does not work that way anymore.  Zahnd rejects this on the principle that God does not change.  At the same time, Zahnd also shows that many Christians utilize the book of Revelation to show that God has not really changed but that God really is merely a God of wrath.  If Revelation portrays Jesus as returning to slaughter his enemies, then the question of what God is like finds its answer: God is wrath.  Here the acts of Jesus on the cross, as well as throughout his life, do not reveal what God is really like.  Instead Jesus is sort of a reprieve between the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the vengeful God of Revelation.  God may offer forgiveness and love for a time, but this is merely temporary.

              I think this understanding of God is too common among Christians in America.  It is as if the Jesus in the Gospels, the Jesus who teaches love of enemy and then does it and demands we do the same, is too radical.  Our human nature wants a vengeful God.  The sad thing is that to fall back into a God of wrath is to take away what makes Jesus unique.  Every culture and religion (okay, maybe not every one…I am using hyperbole here) has deities that enjoy wrath.  Whether Babylon, Rome or America, these empires go to war with the belief that God blesses our weapons and fighting.  The idea that God demands something different is so uncomfortable.  So we welcome Jesus for forgiveness of our sins and a ticket to heaven, but find Jesus’ way too impractical for daily life.

              Zahnd thus argues that the portrait of Jesus in Revelation does not contradict Jesus in the gospels.  Instead, Jesus truly is the human face of God.  Jesus revealed God.  This is basic Trinitarian theology.  Zahnd emphasizes over and over what this means though.  The Bible is not a flat book where all parts are equal.  The Bible is open to many interpretations, and you can easily find a violent God in there if you wish.  But it is Jesus, God in the flesh, that regulates our understanding of the rest of the Bible.  Because of how Jesus reveals God, we are forced not to say God is a monster or God changes, but to be open to the idea our understanding of the Old Testament has to change.  This is one area where Zahnd could have spent more time, though it is also basically what Boyd’s book is about.  In essence, we know what God is like in Jesus.  When it comes to God’s love in Jesus and God’s order for wrath in the Old Testament, we go with Jesus.  That may leave questions about what the Old Testament means, but those are questions we can live with since we now have Jesus in his proper place.

              If questioning traditional interpretations of the Old Testament is not enough, Zahnd also questions traditional understandings of hell.  First, I think he is right on in cautioning Christians against being confident of who is in hell.  Jesus is Savior and Jesus will save all sorts of people.  Second, he does not actually say much about the afterlife.  Zahnd’s emphasis is on this life, including the hells we humans create.  That said, it is clear that his understanding of God as Love means the door is never closed on anyone, in this life or the next.  If a person turns away from their self-centeredness and desires to know God, God will welcome that person.  As the book of Revelation says, the gates of the New Jerusalem are never closed, so presumably people can enter at any time.  God’s love means God is, like the Father in the parable of the prodigal, always willing to welcome anyone.  The problem is that we, like the son, are slow to go home.  I suppose Zahnd is not a big enough name to get criticized the way Rob Bell did with Love Wins (which I am pretty sure many of his critics did not bother to read), but he sounds a lot like Bell here.

              Overall, I loved this book.  Even if you do not agree with some of Zahnd’s conclusions, I think the questions he is raising are worth your time.  Does God send people to an eternal torture chamber, worse than anything Hitler devised?  Does God change?  How do we understand passages of the Old Testament, such as the Canaanite genocide, in light of Jesus?  What, ultimately, is God really like?  Is God’s love and forgiveness in Jesus just a parenthesis between lots and lots of wrath?  Or is Jesus truly the human face of God?

              Finally, most of my qualms with this book come down to editing.  Zahnd’s foil here is Jonathan Edwards, the title of the book is even a modification of one of Edwards’ sermons.  After the first chapter or so, Zahnd begins mentioning John Calvin and Calvin’s ideas.  Unless I missed it, he never quoted Calvin.  Perhaps Calvin is a stand in for Calvinism, though Calvinism is broad.  Maybe Puritanism?  John Piper?  I am sure Calvin is closer in theology to Edwards than Zahnd, but bringing Calvin in with little introduction seemed sloppy.  Likewise, there were a couple other references with no note.  He mentioned William Wallace once, a clear allusion to Braveheart and a strain of Christianity that lifts up Wallace as an ideal man (John Eldredge’s Wild at Heart).  Was this connection I made what Zahnd hoped for?  Again, either editing or something would have cleared this up. 

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review

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CS Lewis Top Ten Books: 5-1

5. The Great Divorce – In this book, Lewis takes the reader on an allegorical journey of heaven and hell.  Honestly, this is one of those books that makes me surprised Lewis is so popular in evangelical Christian circles.  Were he living and writing today as a member of American evangelicalism, I suspect he would be highly criticized.  That aside, this is a fantastic work of speculative fiction.  Whatever you think about the afterlife, there is a lot here to ponder.  This book also shows Lewis’ brilliance in that he combined a tremendous talent for storytelling as well as an astute mind.  In other words, he did not just present his ideas in straightforward theology books but let them meander out in fascinating stories.

4. A Grief Observed – One of Lewis’ first books was The Problem of Pain.  In it he tackled the age old challenges to faith of evil and suffering.  Its not a bad book but it does not make my list because, helpful as such books are, they often appear separated from real life suffering.  Lewis, as a veteran of the first world war, was certainly familiar with suffering.  But I recall The Problem of Pain approaching the problem a bit too on the rationalistic side.  What is fascinating is how one of Lewis’ last books attacks the problem.  A lifelong bachelor, Lewis eventually married only to have his wife die of cancer.  The short book, A Grief Observed, is his raw and emotional cry in response to this suffering.  The rationalist presenting well thought out answers is gone in the face of a man nearing despair and questioning his faith.  Lewis did not lose his faith of course, and this book is brilliant for its honesty.

3. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader – Finally we get to the Narnia stories.  I thought of just putting them at number one as a whole.  As I write this, I wonder why I did not include The Last Battle or The Horse and His Boy in my top ten.  But since I was a kid, Voyage of the Dawn Treader has been one of my favorite stories.  It is the third Narnia story, the first without Peter and Susan.  We meet Eustace who joins his cousins, Edmund and Lucy, on a voyage to the end of the world.  I think there’s just something about quest stories that has always gripped me.  Of course, there is some fantastic imagery I did not get as a kid which I find profound now.

2. Mere Christianity – It was probably sometime in college when I first learned that the author of my favorite fantasy series had written other books.  This is Lewis’ most well-known work apart from Narnia and has become a classic of Christian apologetics.  The last time I read it, I recall being surprised by how good it was.  Some of the arguments are so familiar, and so often quoted, that they are also often criticized. And it is true that some of the arguments out of context are less convincing.  For example, Lewis argues that Jesus must be either liar, lunatic or lord.  But what about legend, maybe the stories in the gospels are far from what really happened? (I believe Lewis does address this in later essays since it was probably a critique even in his day.)  So yes, its not a perfect book (the few pages when Lewis address male-female relationships are actually pretty bad).  But it is a wonderful book and deserves its place at the top of Lewis’ works

1. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – What else could I put here?  My love of Narnia dates back to discovering this book in my church library as a kid (as I noted in the first post).  I was entranced as I read it during church, rather than listening to the sermon.  At some point the allegory became apparent, seeing Aslan as Jesus. I recently read it to my oldest daughter and look forward to reading it to my son.  I don’t necessarily want to say it was life-changing, but I think it was.  Lewis loved stories and came to see the story of Jesus as the myth that became fact.  So all the stories we love point to the true story of the world.  For me, this book prepared me for a deeper understanding of the story of Jesus.  Heck, maybe at some point it saved my faith.  There have been times I wanted Aslan and Narnia to be real.  That aside, it is a fantastic story.  Thus its number one both because it is a great story and, personally, it changed my life.

CS Lewis’ Top Ten Books: 10-6

I’ve been a fan of CS Lewis’ writing forever, since I picked up The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe in my church library when I was around ten.  Over the years I have managed to read most of his books, both fiction and non-fiction.  He is often quoted and has shaped many hearts and minds.  For what it is worth, enjoy my top ten Lewis books.

10. The Abolition of Man

This is a short book, under 100 pages, that packs a powerful punch.  Lewis argues for the importance of universal values such as honor and courage.  He shows how these values are found all over ancient cultures and world religions.  It makes sense, since if all humans are created in God’s image then we should share many values.  As he looked at the twentieth century, Lewis feared his culture was trying to jettison these long-held and vital values.

9. The Weight of Glory

Some of Lewis’ best work came in essays and lectures.  This book is a collection of some of those.  The best here is “Learning in War Time” where he addresses whether it is worthwhile continuing to study at university during war, specifically WWII.  Expanded, this is one of the best defenses of Christians pursuing study that you will find anywhere.  He also writes an essay on why he is not a pacifist, which I recall being disappointing.  Overall though, a wonderful collection.

8. God in the Dock

Here is another collection of essays, though this one is at least twice as long as The Weight of Glory.  If you have read a lot of Lewis, you will see many of his ideas found in his books showing up in his essays.  On the other hand, if you’re new to Lewis this might serve as a good preview for some of the arguments in his books.

7. Till We Have Faces

Lewis is the rare author who combined the ability to write fantastic fiction with compelling work on Christian spirituality and theology.  This book was his last work of fiction and perhaps his best.  While the Narnia stories were for children and much of the symbolism was easy to discover, the messages and meanings here require a good bit more thought.  Lewis thought highly of pre-Christian paganism, and this story is set in such a pre-Christian land.  Thus we meet a “god” and not God.  Lewis thought that Western culture might need to return to paganism in order to be prepared for a serious reevaluation of Christianity.  Meaning and symbolism aside, this is a great story.

6. The Four Loves

In this book Lewis examines different types of love, from affection and friendship to romantic love and self-giving love.  I found this both challenging and enlightening.  One vital point Lewis makes is differentiating between need-pleasure and pleasure-of-appreciation.  The first is kind of self-centered  you appreciate something because you need it; you love it because of what it does for you.  This is not bad of course, but, to take one example, if your love of your spouse never matures past this you are in trouble.  Pleasure rooted in appreciation loves the other for its (his, her) inherent goodness and beauty.

Stay tuned for 5-1 next week…

Why I Chose to Give Up Twitter and Save My Soul

Most days my mornings beginning roughly the same: I get up, make the kids their breakfast and then sit down to drink my coffee while reading the news.  My interaction with the news is not through a physical paper but is filtered through the News and Twitter apps on my phone.  Because of this, my reading of the news was not limited to news but included commentary (tweets and retweets) from the hundreds of people I had chosen to follow on Twitter.

I recently realized that engaging with the news in this way was becoming a huge distraction in my life.  This is because reading the news in the morning was never enough.  I would be drawn back throughout the day to see the latest comments on that news – whether funny, snarky, angry or thoughtful.  It got to the point where every hour or so I felt a need to check twitter to see the latest.  Further, with my phone charging next to my bed I found myself reaching for it first thing in the morning.  Again, I justified this by saying I wanted to check the weather.  Or maybe someone texted me something important while asleep.  But my groggy half awake self was already diving into the news of the day as presented on Twitter.

I recently read Liturgy of the Ordinary by Tish Warren and I believe every single Christian, or perhaps any person, could benefit by reading it.  It is one of my favorite books, and probably one of the most practical, I have read in a long time.  She writes about the spiritual practices that shape us, such as how we spend the early moments of our day:

          “By reaching for my smartphone every morning, I had developed a ritual that trained me toward a certain end: entertainment and stimulation via technology. Regardless of my professed worldview or particular Christian subculture, my unexamined daily habit was shaping me into a worshiper of glowing screens. Examining my daily liturgy as a liturgy—as something that both revealed and shaped what I love and worship—allowed me to realize that my daily practices were malforming me, making me less alive, less human, less able to give and receive love throughout my day. Changing this ritual allowed me to form a new repetitive and contemplative habit that pointed me toward a different way of being-in-the-world.

Twitter can be a helpful and useful tool.  There are plenty of smart people on there sharing helpful and challenging ideas.  But I realized that reading, and trying to keep up with, the tweets from a bunch of strangers was beginning to hurt my real life.  Again, I could justify it because if I retweeted something good I was speaking truth or fighting the good fight.  If I am honest though, nobody cares what I have to say.  My tweets are not making any sort of difference beyond virtue signaling.  And, once again, there is a whole world around me that I want to make a different in.

In other words, social media in general and twitter specifically was not helping me become the father, husband, neighbor, campus pastor or church member I want to be.

I’ve been challenged by scripture like this one:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.  Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things – Philippians 4:6-8

What am I doing that promotes meditating on good things rather than being filled with anger, stress and frustration (which is where I usually ended up after being on Twitter)?

Rather than picking up my phone first thing in the morning, I sit in bed and think or I pick up my Bible and read.  Perhaps I write in my journal.

Rather than checking Twitter every hour, I am trying to sit in the silence of the day, to pray for those around me, and think of ways I can act in positive ways in the world.

I pray this makes me more content throughout my days, and also more active in actually helping those around me.

If interested, I preached a sermon on this at my church last week: Content. Check it out here (October 1, titled Content).

 

The Walkin’ Dude Is Still Walkin’ – Thoughts on Evil

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.”

So begins The Gunslinger, the first book of Stephen King’s fantasy epic series, The Dark Tower.  Over the course of the series we learn that the man in black is in fact a character familiar to King’s universe, Randall Flagg.  Flagg is an evil entity.  Perhaps we could call him a wizard, though wizard is not really the right word for him.  Better to say he is the personification of evil.

Flagg first appeared in King’s post-apocalyptic book, The Stand, which I am reading right now (I’m on page 810 as of this morning).  We meet him walking through a desert in the western United States, and he is immediately shown to be a dark man who loves chaos.  After a plague kills 99% of humanity, the survivors dream of Flagg as well as a kind old woman named Mother Abagail.  Some survivors join Flagg while others join Mother Abagail.  Some of Abagail’s first followers are not sure if Flagg is real and ask her about him:

“How much do you know about the dark man? Do you know who he is?

“I know what he’s about but not who he is. He’s the purest evil left in the world. The rest of the bad is little evil. Shoplifters and sexfiends and people who like to use their fists.  But he’ll call them.  He’s started already. He’s getting them together a lot faster than we are.  Before he’s ready to make his move, I guess he’ll have a lot more.  Not just the evil ones that are like him, but the weak ones…the lonely ones…and the ones that have left God out of their hearts.”

“Maybe he’s not real,” Nick wrote. “Maybe he’s just…” He had to niblle at the top of his pen and think. At last he added: “…the scared, bad part of all of us. Maybe we are dreaming of the things we’re afraid we might do.”

Ralph frowned over this as he read it aloud, but Abby grasped what Nick meant right off.  It wasn’t much different from the talk of the new preachers who had got on the land in the last twenty years of so.  There was evil, and it probably came from original sin, but it was in all of us and getting it out was as impossible as getting an egg out of its shell without cracking it.  According to the way these new preachers had it, Satan was like a jugsaw puzzle – and every man, woman and child on earth added his or her little piece to make up the whole. Yes, all that had a good modern sound to it; the trouble with it was that it wasn’t true. And if Nick was allowed to go on thinking that, the dark man would eat him for dinner.”

The Stand, p. 503-504.

I couldn’t help but think of this passage, and of Flagg, in the last twenty-four hours.  Once again evil has been given a face as one man murdered dozens of people at a concert.  As usual, many people have shared much on social media – thoughts, tears, prayers, ideas for why this keeps happening and ideas how to stop it.  A lot of this is helpful, some of it is probably not.

I personally don’t have much to say on any of that right now.  All I know is evil is alive and well in 2017.  Most days, if you ask me, I am honestly not sure if there is such a being as “Satan.”  God as the ultimate reality, the infinite ground of being and creator of all things, makes sense to me.  A spiritual realm with spiritual beings, some good and some evil, is a little tougher to swallow but I can buy it.  But a grand demon in charge of all the rest, good ole’ Lucifer?  For some reason, that seems difficult to believe.  But then I look at the evil and suffering in the world and I think maybe there is something to that old time religion with its talk of battles with an incredibly powerful being, Satan, the personification of all evil.

Satan is still active, enticing people to evils both big and small.

Flagg may have a different name and face,  but he’s out there causing chaos.

The walkin’ dude is still walkin’ through the desert…

PS: Richard Beck has a pretty fantastic book on Satan that I read a few months back that speaks to contemporary Christian skepticism to Satan as well as the reality of such evil. Check it out: Reviving Old Scratch.