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.

 

 

 


Jun 6 2011

Whatever became of sin?

In 1973 Dr. Karl Menninger wrote a little book with the provocative title, Whatever Became of Sin?, in which he questioned the disappearance of right and wrong from psychiatry. It was a good question in 1973, and it’s a good question today.

Coincidentally, after I had begun to write this post, I ran across this from Michael Hyatt:

In recent years, I have noticed an increasing tendency for people to admit to mistakes rather than sins. It happens at every level, whether someone is caught cheating on their spouse, filing false insurance claims, or shoplifting from a clothing store.

Today, also coincidentally, we have Rep. Anthony Weiner’s confession of mistakes. I won’t go into details, Weiner already being the butt of too many weiner jokes. The point is, he didn’t confess to anything really sinful; he merely made a mistake.

The problem with mistakes

Mistakes are unfortunate situations, like forgetting to wear pants when you take a picture of yourself, or accidentally tweeting the photo to some girl who is not the one you are married to. Oops!

Mistakes could even be your fault—but mistakes don’t make you a sinner, they only make you a mistaker. Which is fine, until you find that you need forgiveness.

Jesus didn’t come to take away the mistakes of the world.

 

I couldn’t resist.


Mar 6 2011

Deitrich Bonhoeffer on certainty

What is certain is that we are always allowed to live in the nearness of and under the presence of God. What is certain is that this life God has made available for us is a completely new life. For us nothing is impossible anymore, because for God nothing is impossible. No earthly power can touch us without God’s will. Danger and trouble only drive us nearer to God. What is certain is that we do not have to demand and yet we are allowed to ask for everything. It is certain is that our joy is hidden in suffering—in death is our life hidden. Certain is that in all those things we are in fellowship, and this fellowship sustains us. ~Deitrich Bonhoeffer, “Our Meaning is in Jesus”

(Thanks to Near Emmaus)


Nov 28 2010

Advent Sunday, Anglican style

From the 1662 Book of Common Prayer:

Almighty God,
give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness,
and put upon us the armour of light,
now in the time of this mortal life
in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility;
that in the last day,
when he shall come again in his glorious majesty
to judge both the quick and the dead,
we may rise to the life immortal;
through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

That about sums it up.

Thanks to John H, who always has some interesting things to say.