Reframing a Relevant Faith

by C. Drew Smith

★★★★★

Progressive Christian C. Drew Smith asks, “Is Christianity a religion that legitimizes intolerance, subjugation, and violence, or is it a faith of tolerance, equality, and peace?”

He locates the answer only after digging clear back to our Savior, and Smith brings a Ph.D. in the New Testament to help with the job. Jesus, Smith explains, believed that God was presently acting in the world to bring about something new, a radical shift in the Judaism of his day. He invited people to enter an empire; an alternative empire, the Empire of God, under the rule of God. He was calling them to offer their allegiance to God and not Caesar. Jesus’s dream of a Kingdom of God was never about getting to a place called heaven. It was a call to insubordination against the Roman Empire and all that was unjust. Joining the Jesus movement meant opposing the powers that carried out oppression, violence, and injustice, whatever those powers may be.

How do we oppose injustice? First and foremost, Jesus called his followers to respond to the harm that is done to them with nonviolence. Turn the other cheek. Learn to love even those who harm you. Develop a “radical love” for neighbors and enemies equally in the quest for compassion and justice. And do so in an outward practice, welcoming and embracing your enemies.

Can it possibly work? Jesus bet his life on it, and he turned out to be right, though he wouldn’t live to know it. Smith argues that Jesus surely understood his fate, that he would most likely be crucified. History had told him that to challenge the authority of Rome was treason, and the penalty for treason was death. We may not need to die for the cause as did our leader, but let’s be clear: Following Jesus is liberating, but it is also demanding. It is costly. If your Jesus permits you to wage unjust violence against your enemies in the name of national security, if he allows you to hoard money and possessions in the name of financial security, if he consents to your prejudices against people of other races, genders, religions and sexual orientations, then he is not the Jesus of the Bible. The real gospel of the real Jesus calls us to give up ourselves in self-sacrificial service to God and others by taking up the cross and following Jesus. The question is not “can it work,” but “can we embrace the crucified Jesus?”

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I absolutely loved this book. I struggle to rate it because, frankly, I agree so strongly with everything inside its covers that I fear my own bias will unfairly influence my rating. Yet as I now go over my notes, I see how much encouragement it provided me, which seems a fair measure of the book’s value. So, five stars, with no apology. Thank you for your humble message, Mr. Smith, and thank you, Energion Publications, for knowing how much i would fall in love with the review copy you sent for my perusal.

Energion Publications, © 2014, 122 pages

ISBN: 978-1-63199-121-9

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A Man Called Jesus, A Novel

by Rick Herrick

★★★★

Herrick’s new book is more than fiction; it’s a controversial, studied picture of the Jesus of history. Just as the Gospel writers set about to convey the nature of Jesus in story, so does Herrick. His Jesus, however, is human and fallible. The man we call Jesus fell into his place in history through good intentions and a bit of naivete.

Buy this book for a thoughtful portrayal of a driven, compassionate man who lived 2,000 years ago. Herrick’s prose is a bit passive; this book just isn’t meant to be a page-turner. He repeatedly tones down the supernatural claims of scripture, sometimes blatantly rewriting the Bible. But that’s sort of the point. Herrick means to provide a reasonable image, true to the atmosphere of the first century, of the most influential man who ever lived.

The book’s real value is in the retrospective analysis that it demands. Readers already familiar with the Jesus of the Bible will enjoy Herrick’s work the most, since it is the rewritten passages which are most meaningful. This is Herrick’s subtle way of highlighting where historical truth escalated into evangelical posturing, particularly in the passion narrative. Thus, the short section at the end, where Herrick discusses the research which led him to portray Jesus in this manner, cannot be missed.

Recommended for all who believe they know who Jesus really was, this book will make you think differently.

Sunstone Press, © 2014, 136 pages

ISBN: 978-1-63293-021-7

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Book review: The River of Life

Here’s an incredibly generous review of my latest book, written by fellow author Judy Croome. For a closer look at Judy’s work, visit her at http://www.judycroome.com/. Her review is here.

★★★★★

Although short, this thought-provoking book packs a powerful punch. As one of the “spiritual but not religious” folk Harmon mentions, I found myself thinking if the priests of my childhood had presented the Bible, God and the Christian faith the way Harmon does, I’d probably still be spending my Sundays on a church pew.

Clearly well researched and presented in the clear style of a friendly chat, THE RIVER OF LIFE is a balanced treatise of the heart as well as of the head, which discusses:

•    Heaven & Hell

•    The Second Coming

•    The Good News

•    The Historical Jesus

•    Doing Our Part

•    But What About Miracles?

•    Faith in God

•    The River of Life

Each of his theories are presented scrupulously and convincingly in a way that is respectful even when it disagrees with conservative Christian views. Harmon remains firm and strong on his own open-minded interpretations of his faith and “agnostic Christianity”, while not trying to convert or diminish other, more conservative, Christian views or different religious beliefs. He learnt from his grandmother that, “A man convinced against his will is of the same mind still,” [Location 1284] and he does not try to convert anyone away from their own beliefs.

Instead, Harmon uses his deep insights and alternative understanding of the faith of Jesus Christ to offer an interpretation that it would well serve the world to adopt in order to follow in the steps of the master teacher and healer Jesus Christ. Harmon suggests a way of following the teachings of Jesus Christ that make us, as spiritual beings, responsible for bringing the Kingdom of God into the here and now of our lives. “Imagine,” he says, “a world governed by light, life and love.” [Location 1279]. How inspiring to believe that the meaning of our lives can be found in actively emulating the Christ-consciousness, rather than waiting for rewards in an after-life.

There are areas where my experience of faith differs from Harmon’s – the after-life is one area – and, as a vegetarian, I would have liked to have read his thoughts on extending the compassion and love of Christ to all sentient beings, especially animals who are so sorely treated by humans. After all, in Eden did Adam & Eve not live in harmony with all the beasts? Do we not hope that the lion will lay down with the lamb?

Despite these minor divergences, this book left me uplifted and hopeful. When reading it (and re-reading some passages more than once) I didn’t need to imagine the world of light and love he speaks of. I felt that light and love in the living pages of this book that so sincerely reflects one man’s deep faith, and his determination to follow in the footsteps of Christ make the grace of God manifest in his life.

The hymn, Amazing Grace, is a favourite of mine, especially the words “I once was blind, but now I see.” As human beings, carrying immense divine potential within our souls, I think we’re closest to the Divine Source, to that same light of God that Jesus himself believed in, when we’re questioning our faith (whatever faith that may be) rather than blindly accepting it. If THE RIVER OF LIFE is evidence, then Harmon is very close to his God indeed.

Any spiritual seeker, whatever their search for faith in God begins, will find THE RIVER OF LIFE fascinating reading.

I recommend this book so highly, I’ve bought a second (print) copy as a gift for my husband who has a strong interest in comparative religions.

Energion Publications, © 2014, 94 pages

ISBN: 978-1-63199-091-5

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God of Fire: The Hope Reformation

by Joshua Woodward

★★★★

Who is God, really? A fire-breathing tyrant? A loving Father? Woodward wants to reintroduce us to a God whose purpose is love. Yes, there’s fire in scripture, but God’s fire is for refining, not punishing. Everyone goes through the fire, not just the uncooperative guys.

For everyone will be salted by fire –Mark 9:49

But what about the book of Revelation, which promises everlasting punishment in a lake of fire? What about the gospel of Matthew, which seems especially hung up on hellfire? Woodward suggests we forget about them. A number of books have covertly slipped into the canon, through the deception of evil angels, which do not carry the authority of Christ or the apostles. He insists that apocalyptic themes, especially those regarding eternal fire, are contradictory to the true message of Christ. This is not the purpose of God’s refining fire. Consequently, Woodward rejects a number of the New Testament books, and calls us to return to the gospel taught to us by Peter, John and Paul. His arguments for this radical action are very interesting.

As with most highly controversial books, there was much I agreed with and much I did not. For me, the value of a book can often be measured by how many notes I take in the margins reminding me to research the topics further. This time there were plenty! One fascinating example is Woodward’s suggestion that when Jesus spoke of returning on the clouds, the “cloud” he referred to was the Holy Spirit. Similar to my own interpretation of the Gospel of John, Woodward suggests that the arrival of the Holy Spirit represented Jesus’s Second Coming. (I hope I’m representing him properly.)

On the downside, I did find the book just a little bit preachy and assumptive. Woodward looks forward to the day the Jews finally understand their own scripture. He recognizes the Spirit of God working in groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, while noting that they don’t really yet “know Him as we do.” I found such passages a bit distracting, so I dropped my rating one star.

I received an unedited version for review, and did not take into consideration its lack of editing.

Createspace, © 2014, 227 pages

ISBN: 978-1502365569

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The Weight of a Feather: and Other Stories

by Judy Croome

★★★★★

I’ve been a sucker for short stories ever since I discovered Edgar Allen Poe as a young teenager, so when Judy Croome offered to share a collection of her stories, I couldn’t resist. It isn’t really an appropriate choice for my blog, but it was an enjoyable break, definitely worth sharing in a casual review.

Leslie (my blog partner) asked me as I was reading what the book was about. I said it was about life, and that seemed to satisfy her. But the question remained with me: What is your book about, Judy? My mind wandered back to another book I reviewed of Croome’s, a haunting spiritual journey titled Dancing in the Shadows of Love. It, too, was about life, and I found myself captivated by Croome’s short story collection in the same way.

Croome is a very good writer. Her stories are imaginative and engaging, they play heavily on the element of surprise, but more than that, they leave you full of feelings. Icky feelings, happy feelings, sad feelings, nervous feelings. Her characters–all of them–are simultaneously common and peculiar, a little like peeking into the closet of your smiling next door neighbor. A little like if you were to peek into your own heart. It’s scary stuff.

Some stories appear to have been published before, and some appear to be originals, but they’re all great reads. Highly recommended!

Aztar Press, © 2013, 193 pages

ISBN: 978-0-987047-3-0

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Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

by Francis Spufford

★★★★★

British Christianity just isn’t the same as our American brand. It’s funnier, raunchier, and more real … that is, if Spufford, a self-proclaimed Christian, is a legitimate example.

We’re not likely to hear Spufford’s take on Christianity from the pulpit, but I wish we could. I really do. This book is a must-read. This is Christ and Christianity down off its pedestal, down in the mud and the blood. This is Jesus the way he really lived and died. It is Christians today, with our human doubts and fears and needs, the way we live and die in the real world. This is life; therefore, this is God.

The kicker? Despite everything, despite the HPtFtU (Human propensity to f— things up) Christianity does still make surprising emotional sense.

Francis Spufford is first and foremost a writer, as becomes evident in the opening paragraph, which is a good thing. Set aside a few hours for a captivating, picturesque read.

Harper One, © 2013, 213 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06-230046-1

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Book review: You Don’t Understand the Bible Because You Are Christian

by Richard Gist

★★★★★

Definitely a candidate for the Dubious Disciple top ten award this year. I can’t recall when I last enjoyed a book this much. Gist brings the Bible alive as ancient Hebrew storytelling, and though there’s sometimes a bit of speculation involved, the flavor of his interpretation is so fascinating that it must be spot on.

Gist describes himself as a “still growing, though retired, minister, who enjoys what he is continuously learning about the Bible.” He does not pretend to be a biblical scholar, yet he brings a common-sense approach to understanding Jewish literature. One fun example is his discussion of the difference between Hebrew prophecy and Christian prophecy. Hebrew prophets were never future-tellers the way we want to believe they were; they were actually more likely to go around playing music, falling into trances and stripping naked.

So why don’t we understand the Bible the way ancient Hebrews did? Because we’re Christian. Within two or three generations after Jesus, Greek-speaking gentiles took over the church. The early Christians did not understand Jewish literature, they began to distance themselves from Jews, and soon even became enemies. People began to read scripture literally, which buried the subtle messages within. The Jesus movement, instead of promoting the prophets’ dreams, somehow turned into a religion.

Nowhere is this more evident than in comparing two early Christianities, which Gist labels Pauline and Petrine. Pauline Christianity won the race–it’s what we all are familiar with today–but Petrine Christianity is more loyal to its Jewish roots, and thus surely more loyal to Jesus.

So if we’ve been wrong all along, is there hope for us to learn what the Bible really means? Yep, I think so, if we can outgrow this tendency to read scripture like a literal history book, and Gist is the person to help us! His approach is loads of fun, his writing is engaging, his research is fascinating, and most important of all, he simply makes sense.

Buy this one for sure.

FriesenPress, © 2014, 176 pages

ISBN: 978-1-4602-4272-8

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Book review: The Way of Serenity

by Father Jonathan Morris

★★★★★

Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Repeated by millions worldwide, this simple prayer has transformative power. Father Morris first began to contemplate its healing power when he found himself sitting in an open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and hearing it shared aloud. Says Morris, “It was the purest and most genuine act of self-abandonment to God’s will I had ever witnessed. Their prayer wasn’t especially pretty, or clean; it was real, and gritty. It was the opposite of religious showmanship; it was intimate, existential, and wholly indifferent to any outsider’s praise or reproach. It was prayer, plain and simple.”

So he broke the simple prayer into its three parts and wrote a three-part book. It is a Catholic perspective, but without heavy-handed religion; just inspirational encouragement and practice suggestions to develop our serenity, courage, and wisdom. You can guess the first suggestion we should put into practice: Pray this little prayer every day.

Serenity arises partly from knowing that we have done all we can and the rest is up to God. The “problem of evil” can be daunting. Why are their earthquakes, floods, birth defects, terrible diseases and calamities if God loves us? The only satisfying explanation is that God is able to turn evil on its head and bring good out of it.

Courage, too, arises from faith in God. Have you ever noticed how many of Jesus’s parables have to do with getting out and doing something–and how displeased he seems when we fail to act? Doing good is, in essence, the meaning of Christianity. Our purpose is to change the world around us, and the first to change must be us.

But the hardest part of the prayer may be the last part. The wisdom to know what to change and what to accept. Morris encourages us to listen to the whispers of God.

This is a book that can make a difference, one day at a time.

Harper One, © 2014, 231 pages

ISBN: 978-1-06-211913-1

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Book review: The Beckoning

by Michael Minot

★★★★

Well-written and touching, here’s another “atheist lawyer finds Jesus” story. Minot hooked me early in chapter one with this claim: “I was amazed to learn how the Scriptures read like a lengthy letter from the Creator to the objects of His love.” If Minot could impart this perspective to me, I would finally have what I’ve been searching for: a real reason why apologists should imagine that the God of the Bible is our creator.

The book didn’t quite take me there. In fact, bits of it feel a little presumptuous, even naive. Minot ignores the research of Bible scholars and historians, repeating instead the claims of amateur apologists, such as the idea that the Bible is full of unexplainable prophecies and truth-proving, recently-verified historical claims. Sometimes Minot pits Christianity against evolution or against science in general. There is a chapter-long warning against the wiles of Satan, who often “works through the voices of philosophers, political leaders, educators, scientists, or even those claiming to be experts in religion” … in other words, anyone who has studied a topic enough to know more than we do.

But there are definitely worthwhile sections too, because the journey Minot narrates rings of authenticity. Minot’s story of how he found a church that fits him is heart-felt. His feelings of love and awe and appreciation are surely sincere. He has experienced the goodness and comfort of Christianity, and rightfully wishes to share it with others.

It’s best, then, to read this book as Minot’s personal journey rather than scholarly research. It contains the arguments and discoveries that spoke to a new convert and urged him toward his brand of Christianity.  Some readers will find Minot’s perspective convincing and some will not, but all will be inspired by Minot’s 180-degree transition from committed atheist to joyful believer.

Morgan James Publishing, © 2015, 195 pages

ISBN: 978-1-63047-124-8

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Book review: The Two Faces of Christianity

by Richard Markham Oxtoby

★★★★★

Great book, with a needed perspective! If you think you’ve seen Christianity from every angle, try this one. I encourage you to look at it anew from the perspective of a psychologist.

Oxtoby is a Christian. He holds a deep appreciation for the Christian church and believes it has the potential to make a very significant contribution to bringing about the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth. Nevertheless, his beliefs aren’t orthodox. His views will necessarily differ from traditional Christian views because his life’s training opens up truths that cannot jibe with conservative doctrine. He notes that there is a high atheism rate among psychologists, probably because of certain viewpoints perceived by many to be a necessary part of Christianity.

A notable example is the belief that we are all miserable sinners, rotten at the core, and need to be ‘saved’ from the sin into which we were born. Such a perspective is repugnant to those who have studied psychology enough to know of its damaging results. But we needn’t jettison our admiration for Jesus or our sense of God as a spiritual being, immanent in nature, because of a few doctrines gone wrong.

Oxtoby notes that there are two basic religions under one label: [1] An authoritarian religion in which God is seen as an adversary of humankind, over whose eternal destiny he has complete control, and [2] A humanistic religion in which God is a source of positive energy in intimate cooperation with humankind.

Believers in an authoritarian God are deeply focused on our wrongdoing. Guilt is good, for we are flawed beings who need to grovel for forgiveness. Rigid doctrine is necessary, with a proper power organization to enforce the rules. Humanitarian Christianity, on the other hand, affirms the goodness of God’s creation, finds beauty in human diversity, and encourages unconditional love. It takes as a fundamental given that we are fundamentally good. Though Oxtoby holds an appreciation for St. Paul, he compares Paul’s preaching to that of Jesus in order to highlight the difference between authoritarian and humanitarian religion. (Remember, Oxtoby is a psychologist. He is quite capable of loving Paul in both his strengths and weaknesses, recognizing him as a human being with psychological problems and inadequacies like the rest of us!)

I really liked this one.

Christian Alternative Books, © 2014, 392 pages

ISBN: 978-1-78279-104-1

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Book review: The Book of Revelation and the Coming Judgment

by Dale Tolmasoff

★★★★★

Here is a well-researched guide to Revelation that seems to combine the best of futurist and preterist views. Tolmasoff draws strongly on Beale’s exposition of Revelation, and makes a serious effort to accommodate Revelation’s first-century atmosphere without compromising his belief in a Second Coming. He writes from the perspective of a “fallen Jehovah’s Witness,” which is intriguing in itself; I’ve long felt J/W’s have a better handle on Revelation than most of us.

Some of Revelation’s simplest images, such as the New Jerusalem descending to earth rather than remaining in heaven, are presented faithfully by Tolmasoff. Earth is our real home, not heaven, Tolmasoff rightfully insists. On the other hand, when he writes of the ten kings of the earth, he indicates that they will be fighting against Satan. I don’t think this is Revelation’s teaching, it’s actually a first-century legend regarding the return of Nero Caesar (the beast of the sea in Revelation) to battle Rome, so how did this idea make it into Tolmasoff’s book? It leaves me a little confused about Tolmasoff’s loyalties. [EDIT: Dale contacted me and explained that I misunderstood his reference. The “kings from the east” in chapter 16 are not to be equated with the ten kings in chapter 17. Thus, chapter 16’s kings are spiritual in nature and fight against Satan; chapter 17’s kings fight against the lamb.]

Anyway, the key to understanding Tolmasoff’s perspective is tied up in his perception of the three series of seven: the seals, trumpets, and bowls. The first series describes the siege of Jerusalem; the second is against Rome; and the third, Christ’s Second Coming. Quite fascinating, really, and far more logical than many expositions.

I have to confess that from my perspective, where Tolmasoff mixes in traditional views they seem less supported, but that’s probably personal opinion. For example, Jesus spoke of the war of 70 AD as the worst event history will ever record, but Daniel promised an even greater calamity. I found Tolmasoff’s response quite revealing: “So we have a dilemma. If these descriptions are to be taken literally, then the Bible cannot be trusted.” An untrustworthy Bible is apparently unacceptable, as is the idea that Daniel and Jesus speak of the same event, for this would preclude yet another Armageddon. Ergo, one or both biblical claims can’t be taken literally.

Haha…I know I’m being pedantic here, this book really is a strong bit of research that taught me quite a few new insights into Revelation. I loved the discussion of the origins of the thousand-year length of the Messiah’s reign, and of the River of Life. (I happen to be reviewing this book just as my latest book, coincidentally titled The River of Life, reached publication).

I strongly recommend this book for readers of Revelation wanting a balanced approach, one that takes seriously the words of the Bible but preserves your faith in a future climactic Armageddon.

© 2014, e-book by Dale Tolmasoff

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Book review: True Paradox: How Christianity Makes Sense Of Our Complex World

by David Skeel

★★★★

This one is different, but fun. When I think of apologetics, I generally think of logical arguments to prove the existence of God. Skeel is a lawyer, so he doesn’t think in straight lines. He dances around unexpected topics, letting us build a feeling about the truth of Christianity rather than bludgeoning us with hokey evidence.

It’s apologetics with a twist. Soft arguments in contrast to hard science or logic. I like it.

The two topics which most intrigued me were (1) the mystery of beauty and (2) the paradox of justice. The discussion of both was interesting and engaging, if not fully convincing. His goal is not only to defeat materialism but to lift Christianity above other religions as the best fit, and I didn’t quite get there. Yes, Christianity matches our observations of the world, but the fact that Christianity built its belief systems around observations should hardly surprise us. (The universe is beautiful, so a good God must have made it. The world’s justice systems are lacking, so a good God will one day swoop in and make everything right.) Nevertheless, Skeel’s approach leaves us feeling hopeful that something magnificent is behind life on earth, even if we haven’t figured it all out yet.

Skeel is a different kind of Christian than I am; I felt that immediately. He writes often of what “Christians believe” (not this Christian, David) and seems to use the word “faith” in a different manner than I do. This leads to a discussion about heaven in the closing chapter which felt like it just didn’t belong. But again, I realize as I come to the close of the book that I’m not supposed to be drawing equations, but feeling. Skeel is right about this: it feels like there must be more to life than birth and death and purposeless pain in between. There has to be more.

Intervarsity Press, © 2014, 175 pages

ISBN: 978-0-8308-3676-5

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Book review: The Bible Tells Me So

by Peter Enns

★★★★★

Fantastic book! If you’ve ever wondered how to read the Bible like Jesus, here’s your answer in a fun, easy-to-read publication. Peter Enns takes you on a walk through the Bible, pointing out how impossible it is to read it as either a history book or a rulebook. Eventually, he winds up in the New Testament giving examples of how Jesus himself interpreted scripture in his day … the Jewish way, which emphasized creative engagement with the scriptures.

Says Peter, “I believe God wants us to take the Bible seriously, but I don’t believe he wants us to suppress our questions about it.” So, he gives you lots to question. By the time you finish, you’ll be overloaded with practical examples from scripture itself on how to transform the Bible from a stale instruction manual into living, growing Word, able to stretch across the centuries.

Peter’s discussion about the evil of the conquest of Canaan is enlightening. Did God really tell Israel to slaughter every man, woman and child in their way? Or did the Bible’s storytellers–who were tribal, and who connected with God in their day as a tribal warrior God, much differently than we relate to Him today–simply assume that’s what any proper God would want? The answer may be moot: archaeologists are certain no such conquest, such as described in the Bible, really happened. So now what are we supposed to make of the Bible?

Can we trust God enough to let the Bible be what it is?

Peter’s writing style is conversational and … oh, he’s going to kill me for saying this … sort of cute. But don’t let this fool you into thinking his research isn’t scholarly, or that it won’t resurrect new passion within you for the Bible. I absolutely loved this one.

HarperOne, © 2014, 262 pages

ISBN: 978-0-06227202-7

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Book review: That Old Devil Called God Again

by Archbishop Jonathan Blake

★★★

For an author who writes that he “intends [his] book to be positive and enlightening,” this book is disturbingly negative. Its raw, take-no-prisoners tone dares you to knock the chip off Jonathan Blake’s shoulder.

Blake is the Archbishop who isn’t. He escaped from the Anglican Church and says he holds on to the title of Archbishop  “only to provide a platform to ridicule its pretentiousness and to lay siege to the power systems it has spawned.”

So you aren’t going to get any inspirational Christian instruction in this book. What you’ll get is a tirade against the “plastic, manipulated and processed Jesus of Christianity.” Blake is more interested in the real Jesus, a man who succumbed to the same sort of irrational religious thinking that has blighted civilization throughout the ages, but whose intentions were at least good.

Now, the Bible isn’t all bad, Blake insists. It might be worthwhile to extract the few decent parts of the Bible and preserve them, alongside a few nourishing morsels from other religions as well, so as to write a new holy book. But I don’t think Blake is holding his breath for this to happen.

In the mean time, religion has to go. It may seem innocent on the surface, but it isn’t. Religion stunts our growth or, worse, herds us back into infantile rhythms. The teaching of religion should be replaced by anthropology, psychology and sociology. We must protect young minds from being hijacked by religious thinking.

God has to go, too. It is only when we stop believing in God and stop thinking about God and stop praying to God and stop worshipping God and stop having anything to do with God or giving any thought to God that we can be true.

Near the end of the book Blake finally works his way back around to Jesus, who, though his misguided plan of self-sacrifice turned out to be a colossal mistake, still promoted a way of love. Blake grasps and endorses love as the meaning of life, and insists that when we outgrow religion, love will come easier.

In the end, Blake may be more right than wrong, but his tone and lack of supporting references (“evidence suggests” and “studies show” a lot of things in this book) left me shrugging my shoulders.

Christian Alternative Books, © 2014, 249 pages

ISBN: 978-1-78279-538-4

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Book review: Calvin for Armchair Theologians

by Christopher Elwood

★★★★

This is another book in the Armchair Theologians series provided to me by Logos Bible Software for review. I found this one just a little more dry than other books in the series–more of a “just the facts, ma’am” presentation–but it did warm up nearer the end. For someone looking for a quick intro to Calvin, his life and very basic theology, this is a handy little book.

In some ways, Calvin gets a bum rap. Followers through the years have taken his tangential findings on election and turned them into full-blown predestination theology, a way of thinking that many Christians find utterly repulsive. Calvin also was a product of his times, so his hard-line stance against what he considered heretical ideas was not out of place for his era. His actions, such as burning opponents at the stake, today might raise a few eyebrows but Christianity has evolved. His insistence that curiosity which leads to questioning church doctrine garners a special place in hell doesn’t jibe with today’s inquisitive liberal scholars.

But Calvin didn’t consider himself a theologian; he felt that theology was “faith seeking understanding.” Is God really the cause of pain and suffering, as Calvin’s detractors often concluded from his doctrine? No. Have faith, Calvin would say. Somehow, from God’s point of view–which is far above ours–all things work out for good. Besides … we, as poor sinners born in iniquity and corruption, transgress against God’s holy commandments without end, yet God in his grace has chosen us. Well, some of us. The rest are predestined for hell.

Calvin was a dedicated Christian; of that, I’m convinced. He honestly felt his understanding of God was not harsh, but soothing. His legacy has become so complex, his ideas battered around so much, that we have lost sight of the God-fearing man he was. So, pick this little book up and get to know him better.

Westminster John Knox Press, © 2002, x pages

ISBN: 978-0-664-22303-8

Reviewed on Logos Bible Software

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Book review: Wine and the Word

by Kurt Senske

★★★★

This little pocket-sized book was well worth the read, even for someone like me who knows nothing at all about wine.

More than anything else, the book is the expression of one connoisseur’s appreciation for the enjoyment of wine and its rich heritage. But Senske, being Christian, lifts the experience into the realm of religion. Senske finds in good wine some remarkable, unexpected metaphors.

The direction Senske went was not all what I expected. He pays only minimal homage to biblical themes such as the Lord’s Supper (the blood of Christ) and the Messianic Age (the promise of wine’s abundance in the world to come).  Instead, he focuses more on inspirational comparisons  of vineyards, winemaking and wine appreciation with our walk with God. You cannot finish the book without feeling an appreciation for this part of God’s creation, and thus better understand why the Bible contains so many positive references to vineyards and to wine.

Creative Communications for the Parish, © 2014, 127 pages

ISBN: 978-1-889387-76-5

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Book review: postChristian

by Christian Piatt

★★★★★

I’m a fan of Piatt’s books, and once again he doesn’t disappoint. I’ve reviewed a couple of books in his Banned Questions series on The Dubious Disciple, and they too are very good.

This time around, Piatt writes more personally about his past experiences and his vision for the way forward. Christianity has failed Piatt in a number of ways, but he clings to his hope for better times, redefining God (who is not a being to be named, but rather an “event” to be experienced) and looking back to Jesus for his example. He nails the spirit and teachings of Jesus as he discusses topics from neighbor envy to perfect joy. Piatt wants us to spit out the poison and examine Jesus’ example in search of a hungrier love.

In Jesus’ day, the Jews longed for a conqueror to ride in, kick ass, and take names, but instead the Messiah arrived as a Suffering Servant. A new way of thinking. But have we made any progress toward Jesus’ vision? Today, Christianity has become so inured to the values and effects of capitalism within our religious institutions that we’re effectively blind to its presence. What happened to Jesus and his dream of God’s kingdom coming to earth?

What’s left of our church? Can we fix it? Do we care? Piatt admires the church of a friend, where Republicans sit next to bleeding heart former hippies, skeptical intellectuals, and folks who have no idea what they believe, but who find they all fit together in some strangely beautiful way. They need and love one another. That, says Piatt, is a glimpse of the kingdom of God.

Moving, articulate and to the point, this is a book all Christians should read.

Jericho Books, © 2014, 214 pages

ISBN: 978-1-4555-7311-0

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Book review: The Eucharist

by Robert D. Cornwall

★★★★

Too bloody short! This is one of Energion Publications’ Topical Line Drives booklets, meant to introduce a topic directly by zeroing in on the necessities, but this time the abbreviated coverage left me wanting much more. Maybe that’s a good thing.

Known as the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, or the Holy Communion, Cornwall traces the evolution of its practice and meaning through the centuries as this ritual evolved from an agape feast to a sporadic nibble of bread and sip of wine. Along the way, ideas such as “real presence” (Christ’s presence, of course) and transubstantiation developed. The reformation brought further debates about the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, and in modern developments a focal point has developed over thanksgiving (hence the word Eucharist). But what are we thankful for, and how much sacrificial imagery is appropriate? The idea of substitutional atonement can be dreary and uncomfortable for many Christians, so what is the sip and nibble supposed to mean to us?

Cornwall doesn’t insist on any interpretations, but his own opinion is that we should be able to share communion between denominations, and when we gather together at the table, we should learn from one another’s theology. For those who have fallen into a rote practice, there is value in recognizing what Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians say about sacrifice, and ideas of “real presence” can enrich the ritual.

A good little introduction. Here’s hoping Robert Cornwall publishes more on the topic.

Energion Publications, © 2014, 34 pages

ISBN: 978-1-63199-011-3

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Book review: The Synoptic Problem

by Mark Goodacre

★★★★★

This is an excellent overview of the Synoptic Problem with a proposed solution which bypasses the need for a Q document. Goodacre is intrigued by this mystery, stating that the “Synoptic Problem is probably the most fascinating literary enigma of all time.” He provides a fair analysis of why scholars tend to favor Q as a solution, but then dismantles the arguments in favor the Farrer Theory.

The Synoptic Problem seeks to explain the similarities between Matthew, Mark and Luke, which are simply too similar to have been written indepently. But what is the relationship between the three? Which gospel(s) copied from which, why did portions of the gospel story get left out in the copying, and where did any new material come from?

While Q is the assumed missing link in the Two-Source Theory (which states that Matthew and Luke relied on Mark and an as-yet unfound sayings gospel known as Q), the Farrer Theory also assumes Markan priority but then goes in a different direction. It proposes that Luke actually relied on Matthew and Mark, with no need for another source. The idea is that Luke found Matthew’s work largely unacceptable and picked over those additions to Mark that he found in line with his own emphasis while discarding other material. After admitting that the solution is far from proven, Goodacre appeals to Occam’s Razor, choosing what he feels is the less complex solution. If you’re familiar with the divisions titled Mark, Q, M and L, the idea here is that M and Q are Matthew’s additions to Mark, but Q doesn’t derive from an earlier source … it merely represents that portion of Matthew’s additions that Luke chose to retain in his own rewrite.

Written with clarity and numerous examples, but without digging deeper than necessary to portray the issues, this is the best book I’ve read yet about the Synoptic Problem.

Originally published in 2001 by T&T Clark International, this book is now placed in the public domain and made available by the Internet Archive.

T&T Clark International, © 2011

ISBN: 0-567-080-560

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Book review: Lost Christianities

by Bart D. Ehrman

★★★★★

One of Ehrman’s best, I think. Thought-provoking and speculative, yet grounded, this book explores alternative early Christianities before “Proto-Orthodox Christianity” won the battle and shoved the rest aside. You’ll read about the Ebionites, the Marcionites, Gnosticism, and the evolving orthodox church. Ehrman puts all on even ground so that each has an equal voice, because recent discoveries such as the Dead Sea Scrolls have proven just how diverse Christian practices really were back in the first and second centuries.

Ehrman doesn’t mince words when he discusses the “forgeries” both in and out of the Bible, so do be aware the topic gets plenty of ink. This does lead to some interesting conversation, though. The Secret Gospel of Mark, the Pastoral letters in Paul’s name, and the Gospel of Thomas come under scrutiny. Small wonder that in the battle for supremacy between the various Christian branches, the claim for apostolic succession played a central role. In orthodox church tradition, the 27 books of the New Testament are all tied directly to the apostles or companions, while other Christian writings are denounced as inauthentic.

So what are the repercussions of the victory of proto-orthodox Christianity? How has our world been shaped by this? Ehrman feels the significance of this victory can scarcely be overstated. Christianity would surely have no doctrine of Christ as both fully divine and human, and of course no Trinitarian doctrine. But the effects would have been felt far further than Christian debates, and the book’s final chapter left me with much to think about.

Definitely recommended.

Oxford University Press, © 2003, 294 pages

ISBN: 0-19-514183-0

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