Review: Good but falls short sometimes

9781601429513Some parts I agree, some parts I disagree.

That is a good summary of my reaction after reading Brian Zahnd’s book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News. The title of the book is, of course, a play on the famous sermon given by Jonathan Edwards preach in 1741, entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Zahnd is correct in pressing the reader to rediscover God as a God of love who showed us his full nature in the person and work of Jesus. He writes, “God couldn’t say all he wanted to day in the form of a book, so he said it in the form of a human life. Jesus is what God has to say!” (50).

Zahnd is right in his acknowledgement that God’s anger and God’s wrath have become a point of morbid fascination with some denominations and sects of Christianity- especially within the United States. And while there are obviously biblical passages that speak of God’s wrath, it is appropriate to allow Jesus to have the final word on points where there appear to be tension. That is the major idea presented in the first three chapters of the book and an idea that I fully agree with. I also enjoyed his interpretation of Revelation found in the closing four chapters of the book.

However, it is the middle three chapters that caused me to pause and caused me to really consider how to judge Zahnd’s work. Two chapters deal with atonement theology and the third deals with hell. In the chapters on atonement, Zahnd essentially takes a view of atonement traditionally called the moral influence theory. Moral influence theory sees Jesus’s death as a great demonstration of God’s love that causes “a change in [the] sinners’ heart so that they are drawn to God” (Olsen, The Mosaic of Christian Belief, 258-259). Zahnd says something similar: “Jesus was faithful to embody God’s will even to the point of shedding his blood as he forgave sinners. Jesus did not shed his blood to pay off God in the form of a ritual sacrifice…Jesus shed his blood in faithful obedience to his Father’s will, demonstrating divine forgiveness even as he was crucified!” (105). For Zahnd, Jesus’ death was an example of love and an example of forgiveness.

What Zahnd fails to confront are the multitude of verses and illusions that see Jesus’s death through the lens of sacrifice. He doesn’t mention Paul’s argument in Romans or the  use of “propitiation,” for example. I’m not saying that all of Zahnd’s interpretation of Jesus’s death is wrong, however, it is incomplete. For a full discussion of atonement theology, read N.T. Wright’s The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. Wright begins at the same staring point as Zahnd: Is it theologically correct to say that Jesus’s death was a punishment for sin?, however Wright is able to explore that question to much greater depths.

The third chapter that gave me pause is Zahnd’s treatment of hell. He begins the chapter by pondering if Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel is in hell. He then goes on to wonder about Anne Frank and the other victims of the Holocaust or the devote Muslim woman who shows charity and worships the best she knows how. He is right in noting that the “simplistic equation…Christians go to heaven, where they enjoy eternal bliss, while everyone else goes to hell, where they suffer eternal torment” (119-120) is more of a populist notion rather than a biblical idea. However, his main ally is C.S. Lewis who is known lean toward universalism.

I admit we get into trouble when we begin pronouncing eternal judgment on people when that judgment solely belongs to God. But Zahnd’s conclusion that hell represents “refusing to receive and be transformed by the love of God” (137) again isn’t wrong it is just incomplete. He equates hell to the realm of the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son who refuses to come inside for the party. Which is true, but he doesn’t address passages that speak of God’s judgment. Zahnd doesn’t throw out the reality of hell but he redefines hell in a way that might make people uncomfortable because he doesn’t address some of those other biblical passages.

Overall, Zahnd writes a thought-provoking book that challenges the reader to take a fresh look at what it means when the Bible says “God is love.”

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

A Modern-day Song of Lament

Rend Collective has been writing really great songs lately. Right after Easter I linked one of their songs into a blog post and yesterday I heard another new song that I had to pass along- especially since we are currently in our summer sermon series in the Psalms.

The song, “Weep With Me,” is a song written in the form of the Psalms of Lament and puts lament into the language of today. It reminds us, as do the Psalms of Lament, that we can come to God in worship while bringing to God our questions, doubts, anger and sadness. As we poor out those things to God, to the God who cares and loves us, we are reminded of God’s unchanging character and we are reminded (in the words of the song) that “what was true in the light is still true in the dark.”

 

Gone: A story of loss and discovery

goneA book for anyone who has experienced loss. Min Kym lost a million dollar Stradivarius violin, or rather had it stolen, you might have experienced a loss or had something stolen or taken away from you. If you have you can easily relate to Kym’s story.

Min Kym was born in South Korea but grew up in London. At a very early age she exhibited a gift playing the violin and inherited the blessed/curse title of “child prodigy.” Her memoir, Gone: A Girl, A Violin, A Life Unstrung tells the story of her discovery, growth,  and refinement of her life as a violin soloist and how it shattered right before her eyes.

The book revolves around three themes. First, the theme of musicianship. Kym is a violinist and the book sets the reader deep into the world of composers, compositions, and the feelings that come from playing and hearing specific pieces of music. To fully engage with this theme, it is helpful (although not necessary) for the reader to have a basic musical background or, at least, an appreciation for classical composers and classical music.

The second theme is of loss. The uniting of Kym and her Stradivarius is similar to finding the love of one’s life. In fact she writes, “There was no question, no doubt. It was love at first sight. love and everything else: honor, obedience, trust, everything” (84). And just like a love, Kym does an excellent job describing the indescribable: the way that a musician and an instrument discover each other and push each other to greatness. Then, in a moment, all of it stolen and Kym invites the reader into her loss, grief, anger, and despair. Her violin isn’t gone, part of herself is gone. Which brings us to the third theme: self-awareness.

Throughout the book Kym finds herself within the struggle of discovering her voice. She struggles with the traditions of her Korean family. She struggles with demanding teachers and a domineering boyfriend. Ultimately, I think Kym discovers that, not only does she have a voice, she has two: one as a person without the violin and one as a musician with her violin. She writes, “There was a person lurking somewhere inside me that didn’t need a violin to communicate with people…I did have a voice” (135). At the same time, it’s through music that she speaks to the world, with her Stradivarius gone, will she be able to awaken that voice again? I’ll let you read the book and find out.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

Like Reading a Seven-course Meal

as kingfishersOver the last year or two I’ve come to appreciate the pastoral wisdom of Eugene Peterson. Previously I had known him as the writer of The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language but I didn’t know that he was first and foremost a pastor. He was the founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Maryland and lead the church for 29 years.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God is a book that is directly birthed out of Peterson’s pastoral experience. In fact, the book is built around 49 of Peterson’s sermons, preached to his church. The book reaches to dramatic heights and delves into phenomenal depths. Peterson’s words show the richness of scripture while making them accessible and able to be brought into the sermons of pastors today.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire is a collection of 49 sermons grouped into seven sections. Each section is introduced by Peterson to invite the reader into the conversation of what it means to preach in the “company” of Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul and John. By “company” Peterson means for the reader to “enter into the biblical company of prototypical preachers and work out of the traditions they had developed under the guidance of the Holy Spirit” (xxi). Peterson achieves this goal beautifully; he speaks of story telling, praying and poetry, allowing our imaginations to be “Jesus-filled,” and preaching theologically.

There is so much good in this book that it is hard to pick just one example- but I’ll do just that. In the introduction to “Preaching in the Company of Isaiah,” Peterson says this: “The unrelenting reality is that prophets don’t fit into our way of life. For a people who are accustomed to fitting God into our lives or, as we like to say, ‘making room for God,’ the prophets are hard to take and easy to dismiss. The God of whom the prophets speak is far too large to fit into our lives. If we want anything to do with God, we have to fit into God” (116). This is such a profound and needed flip that we must do-especially within our Western culture. God cannot be something I just add into my life. As if we can add God to the plate of our already full lives. We must flip our understanding to see that we fit into God. We join God. We are found in God. We become a part of what God is doing. Peterson points out such an important point in this short paragraph- and that is just one example.

This is one of the books I will continually reference and quote within my own sermons and sermon preparation. When this book is released on May 16, 2017, it needs to be on your list to buy, read and reflect upon.

I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review. Find more information on the book here.

Or watch this extremely interesting short-film featuring Eugene Peterson and Bono talking together about Psalms.

No Outsiders

I ran into this song last week and it’s a great reminder that no one is excluded from coming to God.

That is especially important to remember as we just celebrated Easter. We say, “Jesus died for everyone.” But sometimes we say it but we forget what that means. Jesus died for the homeless man, Jesus died for the terrorist, Jesus died for sex worker, Jesus died for the elite, Jesus died for the forgotten, Jesus died for the educated, Jesus died for the oppressed, Jesus died for you and Jesus died for me.

In Jesus, there are no outsiders.

The Sin of Texting While Driving

New-Braunfels-bus-crash_600You may have heard about the bus crash involving a group of senior adults from First Baptist Church, New Braunfels, TX. The crash killed 13 people and in the last few days it has come to light that the 20 year-old driver of the truck that struck the church bus was engaged in texting while he was driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that, in 2015 alone, almost 3,500 people were killed and another 391,000 people were injured in accident involving a distracted driver. I also read that an estimated 78% of accidents caused by a distracted driver occurred because the driver in question was texting.

You’ve seen people texting while they drive. You’ve probably done it yourself. I’m not throwing stones from a glass house; I admit that I’ve done it. Although, I’m made a conscious effort to stop. One reason for this it that for several years a major portion of my job consisted of driving from worksite to worksite and I was always shocked that while driving on one major highway, I typically saw more people texting on their phones than not texting on their phones. I could usually tell because the car was swerving or failing to maintain a constant speed and, more often than not, when I would pass them, they were on their phone.

Texting while driving has become an dangerous epidemic. You’ve probably noticed that there are more PSAs on texting while driving on television and radio. And while there are various laws, and sometimes no laws, regulating texting while driving, as Jesus followers we are to follow a ethic above the law.

Texting while driving is, not only potentially against the law, it is a sin.

Wait! There’s nothing in the Bible about texting while driving, how can I call it a sin? Let me explain.

Sin, in it’s most basic, is idolatry. Idolatry is when we place anything above God. We place pleasure above God. We place money above God. We place the desire to get our own way above God. We place ourselves above God.

Texting while driving is a form of placing ourselves first. It’s selfishness. It’s saying, “My conversation is more important than the risk to your life.” It’s careless, reckless and selfish and it’s saying that I am more important than anyone else who’s trying to go to work, pick their kids up from school, or go to the store. It’s saying that I want to do what I want, regardless of it’s potential effects on others. And that is sinful.

Jesus tells us to put ourselves last- take the last seat at the banquet- and be a servant- wash the feet of others. Jesus tells us to love those around us as ourselves. We may not go to banquets where we can take the last seat but we can put the cell phone away while we drive. We may not wash someone else’s feet but we can put the cell phone away while we drive. It’s one of the ways that we love those around us as we hold their life with more honor than we hold a text message.

Commit now, put others above yourself and put the phone away while you drive. Don’t trade someone’s life for a text.

North Korea and The Good Shepherd

I’m fascinated with pictures of North Korea. The dichotomy between the “public” life and the “private” life of the country is unsettling. It appears, from all accounts, that the picture of success, power and happiness that the country wants to show the world is nothing more than a charade. The reality is much different. It appears that life there is hard and the government gives the people just enough perks to keep them content. Censorship, control and fear keep the citizens of North Korea from knowing and experiencing the prosperity and freedom that exists just a few miles away in South Korea- which ranks in the top 50 countries in the world in per capita GDP. By comparison, North Korea ranks 210 out of 229 countries.

Why do the citizens of North Korea allow this?

They allow it because they don’t know any better. For most of them they cannot even imagine a life different than the one they live.

Doesn’t that sound like a lot of people you know? People who live their lives never knowing, never imagining that life could be anything more than what they are experiencing. Life can’t be anything more than stress- financial, emotional, or familial. Life can’t be anything more than counting the hours until 5 o’clock- day after day. Life can’t be anything more than rejection.

We may know people like that, but are you and I people like that? Can we fall into that same mindset? Absolutely we can.

In a very familiar verse, Jesus says “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Jesus says that in him, there is life and, more than just life, there is full life and in the following verses he says that it is an eternally safe life. Jesus is not saying that there won’t be stress- but that it cannot steal your life. Jesus is not saying that there won’t be days that are boring or numbing- but that they cannot kill your life. Jesus is not saying that you won’t experience rejection- but that it cannot destroy your life.

This isn’t “Joel Osteen” positive thinking Christianity, this is Christianity under the watch and care of Jesus, the good shepherd.

As sheep we either know the voice of Jesus and follow him or we follow the thief, the robber, or hired hand and when the wolf comes the thief, robber, and hired hand don’t protect the sheep, they exploit the sheep. The good shepherd, Jesus, stands in-between the sheep and wolf and lays down his life for the sheep. The sheep are the same and the wolf is the same but what’s different is the shepherd.

Is your life full? Who is your shepherd?