Jun 20 2015

Searching For Sunday

I just finished reading Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.  I know, this goes against my typical bias against reading anything too trendy. However, I really didn’t know much Ms. Evans, only that I’ve really appreciated a few snippets I’ve read over the past few months, so she stood out as someone – like Nadia Bolz-Weber – who might have something unique to contribute.

I liked it.

Evans is first and foremost a writer. She is not a theologian, or a professor, or a pastor. She writes about life, often her own life, from her perspective, and she doesn’t attempt to do anything else. She is also intelligent, insightful, and honest, which again, makes her a pretty decent writer.

Searching for Sunday is a collection of essays about life in and outside of the church, organized around seven oft-recognized sacraments. Some bits are historical, some are 3rd person narrative, and some share her own life story as it relates to church. While seeming a bit disjointed at times, as a collection of essays often does, I realized that what she is doing is painting a mural of the church from her perspective. You don’t see the point if you look at the individual brush strokes, although you can find a lot to appreciate in those strokes and the colors used. But once you stand back and take it in as a whole, you see what she has created.

In her individual strokes she deals with many hot-button topics, like women in the church, GLBT issues, legalism, etc., but she deals with them as a story-teller, not as an apologist. Again, this is her perspective. And again, she has a lot of insights, and I would guess that anyone who doesn’t just simply shut her out will find a lot to think about, whether you agree with her perspective or not.

If you can back away from the individual brush-strokes enough to see her full picture, I think many – especially those who have only known the contemporary evangelical church – will be faced with a portrait of the church they’ve not really considered prior. For the “dones” – those who have declared themselves done with the church – the book may present a way back in. Or not.  But in any event, I think Evans has painted a portrait of the church worth appreciating.


Apr 19 2014

Book Review: The Promise of Despair

The Promise of Despair may not be the best title.  It probably won’t attract the same crowd that bought any of those “stories my kid made up about heaven” books, and some will assume it’s another “you’re not suffering enough for the Kingdom” teaching.

Then, there’s the “emergent village” logo on the back, which is another red flag for many people (including me).

I probably wouldn’t have given the book a second look if it weren’t for the fact that it was so highly recommended.

A Life-Changer

Contrary to any preconceptions I could have formed, The Promise of Despair has the potential to be the most life-changing book I’ve read in a long, long time.  I say potentially because I’ve only just finished it—a year or 2 down the road, and I can better assess what impact it is having. But, there are strong indications that it has that kind of potential, at least for me.  And, it’s a great book to read during Lent, as a primary focus is Luther’s theology of the Cross.

Death

One of the reasons this book is a potential life-changer for me is that this is a book about death.  Not about dealing with death, or grief, necessarily, but about death itself.  I have had a life-long fear of death, and have developed a pretty decent hatred of it.  I’ve seen it too many times as family and friends have been taken through disease, accidents, suicides, and simply oldness, and I live with death on a day to day basis.  So, it’s a subject close to my heart.

Root begins by discussing Nietzche’s assessment that modernism has essentially declared that God is dead, and the despair that results from our faith in progress and hope for the wrong future. It’s a brilliant assessment of modern culture, postmodern modern culture (postmodernism is just a branch of modernism),  and what has resulted to the church as it has attempted to cover over the reality of death and despair instead of dealing with it.  This is not your typical cultural critique; this is an analysis of a society’s failure to deal with death and it’s impact on Christian theology and practice.

Luther

The second reason for me is that I finally think I grasp Luther’s theology of the cross. I was raised in a Lutheran church that was not really all that Lutheran. I went through Confirmation classes and all, but I don’t think I ever saw a Book of Concord until I bought one a couple of years ago, and I had never heard the phrase “Law and Gospel” that I can recall.  But, I watched “Here I Stand” several times.

So, over the last few years I have tried to get a grasp on the basics of Lutheran theology that other Lutherans all seem to know, and this book clarified a number of things. Now I am more sure than ever that the Lutheran understanding of man and God is far superior (i.e. Biblical, or perhaps “correct”) to the Calvinism that permeates most evangelical theology.  In other words, the book is not a Lutheran book, but it uses some of Luther’s language to express Biblical truth about what death really is, and that—as the author puts it—”we do not suck,” but that we are all victims, as it were, of sin and death, which were defeated at the Cross.  Only by coming to grips with “the monster” do we get to see the true victory of the resurrection; if we don’t embrace death, we don’t get to embrace life.

As I read through this I thought of a fitting quote that I heard years ago that was attributed to Camus (though I have not been able to track it down): “Life begins when you come face to face with death and realize that anything is possible.”  I have understood this, but didn’t realize that this in fact was a kind of restatement of Luther’s doctrine of the Cross. Kind of.  Resurrection life is only possible through Christ taking on death head-on.

 The Problem with the book

The big problem I had with the last portion of the book was that the author seemed to lose his way a bit, trying to create practical applications.  He starts using questions his son asks as chapter themes, which is kind of cute, but didn’t really help make his point, causing him to stretch a bit too much to keep the analogy going.  This was especially true with the last chapter, “The Christian faith is a secret that must be kept.”  Here, he completely lost me. I never figured out why it was supposed to be a secret.  I don’t think he really knew how to end the book.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that the essence of the book is life-changing. As he explains in the book, all of Western culture has issues with death that keep us from really grasping the essence of the Cross and the power of the Gospel.

Conclusion

Buy the book, read the book. It’s that simple. Skip the intro if you want, and skim where you need to.  It’s short but powerful.

 

 

 


Jan 13 2014

Review: Pastrix


It’s been quite a while since I’ve done any kind of book review, but this one warrants a bit of attention because it is—and it isn’t—what I expected.

Trendy and hip

Anymore, I tend to avoid books that belong in the trendy, hip, postmodern category. Been there, done that. I’ve had enough of disenfranchised, “progressive” or Bono-esque Christians who think their calling is to offend, shock, or stretch the limits of theology. So, when I first heard mention of Pastrix, I thought, “oh, Anne Lamott with tattoos,” and didn’t give the book another thought.

Except, that I knew the person who designed the cover, which is totally awesome. I remember sending JuLee a Facebook message that I’d probably buy the book just for the cover. But, I didn’t, at least right away. I have too many “spiritual” books laying around that I’ve never read.

But, as weeks went by, I kept seeing Nadia’s name pop up, and then found a video of one of her messages. It was probably one of the most grace-filled sermons I’d heard in a long time. Then I listened to a couple of more of her sermons, and found her to have a very tenacious hold on grace, which I am attracted to. So, I broke down and bought the book.

The Review

On one hand, it’s not a great book. I mean, she’s not a C.S. Lewis, and you’re not going to be impressed with either her prose or her theological brilliance (I’d say the same thing about my own book). But, Pastrix is not that kind of book.  It’s also not a typical autobiography, although it is intensely personal and autobiographical. It’s also not an angry rant against traditional evangelical attitudes, or a treatise on gay rights, or an attempt to change anything. Neither is it an attempt at self-justification, the way so many memoirs are.

It is, according to it’s book flap, a spiritual memoir. I would describe it as a confession—of a sinner who is being saved by grace, an admitted misanthrope who was called to pastor “her people” as well as a bunch of people she couldn’t relate to at all.  The book is filled with her past and present failings, and her constant discovery that grace is both challenging and essential, and that life is a process of death and resurrection.

The shocking thing…

There are a number of things in the book that many of what I refer to as “shiny, happy people” Christians will find shocking. Nadia swears like a sailor, has a very colorful past, and uses a few colorful phrases that I don’t even understand. She doesn’t edit her language for the book.  At first, you might think the “f” word is inserted throughout the text on purpose, and in spite of the fact that I believe this is her “native” language, it does seem at times self-aware. But, some of that is possibly due to an editor striving to find a balance between honesty and readability. But that’s not what I think is shocking.

There are also a number of stories about a number of people who fall into the “non-straight” categories, and the fact that Nadia’s church, the House for All Sinners and Saints, is, according to their website, “queer-inclusive.” But that also is not the most shocking thing in the book.

What is perhaps the most shocking thing is that Bolz-Weber is, of all things, a Lutheran. I mean, when’s the last time a Lutheran had a best-selling Christian book? And who would expect a tattooed, foul-mouthed ex-comedian to have such a respect for the Eucharist or baptism or the Liturgical Calendar?  She is, at the same time, both liberal and traditional.

One of the things that struck me was her talking about following the Lectionary, which is essentially a preaching schedule that prescribes what texts to preach from on any given Sunday.  She expresses concern about what would happen should she ever stray from this schedule, and allow herself to preach  on any topic she wishes, as well as her concern to stay true to the text. I could only wish that evangelical pastors could follow this example. It is clear that she does not take her role as pastor lightly, and if anything, is something of a reluctant pastor, knowing that she, on her own, is inadequate.

I imagine, for some evangelicals, the fact that she’s Lutheran will just confirm the fact that she’s not really a Christian (believe me, I’ve heard some wacko stuff through the years, being of Lutheran extraction myself).  But, she understands the gospel, and it comes through time and again. Perhaps, being someone who has admittedly been “forgiven much,” she has a much batter grasp on grace than some of us. It’s no coincidence that she has a tattoo of Mary Magdalene on her arm.

Personal reflection

I expected the book to have a certain amount of self-righteousness due her church’s acceptance of sinners of all stripes, because these kind of books often do. But, there is none of that to be found. Bolz-Weber owns up to her self-righteous tendencies, and calls sin sin, taking an extremely humble attitude, and constantly looks to Jesus as savior, healer and redeemer. I found myself having to admit that at times, my own belief in grace fell somewhat short, and I was challenged to reexamine myself. But, it’s an interesting book in that it never lets you walk away feeling anything less than loved, forgiven, and in the process of being saved.

The message of the book is not to build up Nadia Bolz-Weber in any way. Where some authors take the “this is just who I am” approach to justify who they are, Bolz-Weber never falls into that trap. She knows she is inadequate, so clings strongly to the Cross and the Empty Tomb. The message that comes through loud and clear is that the Gospel is dangerous, that it will confront you and change you. That, in the words of another friend of mine, the Gospel accepts you as you are, but it won’t let you stay the way you are.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am challenging myself to reexamine some things, and this book was quite helpful in that regard, as it identified and challenged the “boundaries” of grace. This personal challenge, by the way, is not a response to current events or issues, but from actually reading the Gospels. As I’ve stated in the past, when I read the Gospels as a whole, rather than in bite-size chunks, I tend to come away more “liberal,” with a much bigger picture of grace. I noticed, for one thing, that when Jesus says,”Go and sin no more,” he doesn’t identify which sin. I try never to be presumptuous in interpreting Scripture, but it’s funny how easily we fill in certain blanks.

I am not saying I agree with everything in the book

I don’t want to give the impression that I agree with everything in the book.  She makes some statements that make me go, “Now, hold on a minute…”  I’m guessing everyone could find at least one of those in the book, and some people obviously more than others.  But, why bother to read a book that you already agree with?  That’s kind of a waste of time.

Pastrix, perhaps, is not a book for everyone. I can think of many people I wouldn’t give the book to, for a number of reasons. But, if you think you understand grace—or want to—and dare to be challenged, this may be a great book for you.

Click here to read or listen to some of her sermons.

 


Apr 6 2011

Bart Ehrman forges on in Forged

Bart Ehrman intrigues me. Here’s a guy who apparently could do real research and perhaps even add something to the discussion of Biblical and extra-Biblical writings, but he doesn’t.

It seems to me that he is being purposefully deceptive (i.e. he lies). An alternate theory is that he is really quite clueless, but is able to market himself to publishers and others who are similarly clueless. Or, … well, I can’t really think of any other options at the moment. I don’t want to presume that he’s being intentionally deceptive, but he does seem smart enough to know what he’s saying isn’t correct.

Forged is Ehrman’s latest offering, continuing on in the tradition of really bad scholarship that he’s shown in Jesus, Interrupted and other books.

I haven’t read Forged, however, and I’m not planning to. I’ve read enough of his stuff to know how he writes, so when I read in-depth reviews by people like Ben Witherington, who is a real Biblical scholar, I know enough about the book. So, this post isn’t a review by me, but rather a recommendation to check out Witherington’s series on the book.

In the post linked to above, Witherington comments on Ehrman’s “scholarship:”

Bart, is actually swimming against the tide of the scholarship, even on the Pastorals.   And here I must register a big complaint.   Look at the footnotes to Chapter Three.   Do we find any evidence at all that Bart has even read a broad and representative sampling of commentaries on Paul’s letters, or even on the Pastorals?   No, we do not.  Maybe he has,  but his views only match up with a sort of cherry-picking approach to the scholarship, highly selective in character, and tendentiously favoring only the more radical or controversial commentators on Paul.   It is also worth noting that he relies heavily on the older scholarship  of A.N. Harrison or N. Brox or the eccentric work of  D. MacDonald.   But this older scholarship has long since been critiqued, and largely discarded as inadequate.   Bart however trots it out as if: 1) it was news, and 2) such conclusions would go unchallenged today by the majority of scholars.   Wrong, and wrong.

Witherington agrees with him on many points, as he discusses forgeries that everyone believes are forgeries. It is when he moves into Canonical documents that the problems arise.

Ehrman seems to approach his writing along the lines of a hack journalist, who is more interested in selling his position (and his books) than actually reporting the truth (of course, these days this description could apply to the majority of what passes for journalism). He is, perhaps, the Rush Limbaugh of liberal Biblical scholarship. He tells a good story; the problem comes in when you start fact-checking.

You can read parts 1 and 2 of Witherington’s analysis here and here.