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Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Old and New Project

Just wanted to give a shout out to the graphic designers at the Old and New Project (http://oldandnewproject.com/). I find their biblical graphic art a refreshing break from modern Christian art.
09-Dan-Christofferson

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I recently saw the theatrical version of Les Miserables and I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised. Now, I am not the biggest fan of musicals, especially ones with nearly no dialogue and all song, but I loved the movie because the music really tapped into the raw emotions of the story. The story of Les Miserables focuses around the characters of Jean Valjean and Javert who each have opposing views of God. Javert’s god is the divine lawmaker whose law separates good people from bad people. Javert’s god keeps score and enforces rules with perfect justice. The God of the priest and of Valjean however, is a God of perfect love and mercy. He doesn’t keep score, doesn’t separate people into categories, reaches into the dark alleys of prostitutes and behind the barricades of revolutionaries. His love doesn’t condemn the thief or execute the double agent. Rather, it sets them free, and values even those who are against Him.

The two views play out in the interactions not only of Javert and Valjean together, but also their interactions with everyone else. Javert’s commitment to ‘justice’ restrains and makes people despair and even hate the world around them. But the God of the priest and Valjean liberates, heals, sacrifices, and restores. The musical draws out this key parallel just as effectively as the novel and was one of the main strengths of the movie.

The movie not only delves into the difference between these two views of God, but also the authenticity and value of human love. The love that drives Valjean to the barricade to save Marius and the love that drives Eponine to help Marius find happiness even though it ruins hers. The power of romantic love and family love is contrasted also with the motivations of Javert and are shown in compliment to the love of the God of Valjean.

The revolutionaries are praised in spirit by both the novel and the movie. Their desire to rise above the systematic oppression of the lower classes of society and their genuine desire to make a better world closely mirrors the God who seeks to save and heal the oppressed. But the revolution is crushed and its cause emptied because they, like Javert, believed that they needed to defeat their oppressors to create balance and justice, just as Javert believed Valjean ought to have killed him in the alley. The god of justice brings a mentality of retribution and balancing of power that does not have the transforming effect of the grace of the God of Valjean. I found the movie did a good job in portraying the revolutionaries in this light with the empty chairs song followed shortly by the finale song which shows the revolutionaries singing the song of a God of love.

My favorite element of the movie however was a somewhat less noticeable choice of always placing crucifixes in the area when Valjean is singing about or to God, and placing bare crosses in the scenes when Javert is singing about or to god. And this I thought was the most powerful way of making the distinction between the two clear. The cross is a symbol of roman power that in Christianity is seen as a symbol of divine power and God’s victory. It emphasizes the power and station of God. The crucifix however, draws forth feelings of empathy and emotion, it symbolizes human cruelty and the divinization of the victim and oppressed. It also draws forth emotions of the suffering of God for all human beings and value of all human individuals.

The story of Les Miserables is one of the God of the cross versus the God of religion. And it is a story that plays out in the minds of all Christians, some holding the false idol of Javert’s view and some the pure view of the priest and Valjean. Most however, are somewhere in the middle of struggling between the radical grace of perfectly loving God and the security of conceptions of a holy ruler god. I highly recommend the movie to everyone because it very powerfully shows the redemptive power of God. It challenges believers to choose between the god of Javert and the God epitomized in the phrase of the movie’s finale, “To love another is to see the face of God”.

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Erasing Hell: My Review

Erasing Hell: My Review

To preface this, I am not very familiar with Francis Chan or his work, so this is the first real taste I have had of his writing and to be honest I was not impressed. Chan starts his book with the admission that he himself did not do much of the research for the book, but it was thought that his writing was more convincing, so he authored the book. The problem with this approach to authoring a book like this is that it is very evident that Chan knows very little about the subject which he is engaging.

While the book was marketed as a rebuttal to “Love Wins” by Rob bell, the book is technically about how hell is presented in the Bible and what we have added to the concept. That being said the actual writing in the book is more geared toward refuting notions of universalism. However, Chan knows little about Christian Universalism (other than correctly defining it, which most Christians cannot) and he quotes Thomas Talbott’s “The Inescapable Love of God”, Gregory Macdonald’s “The Evangelical Universalist”, and “Universal Salvation: The Current Debate” multiple times, but never addresses any of the arguments presented in any of those books. Even concerning Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” he never addresses the thesis of that book. Instead, he spends small sections on the supposed “universalist texts” in the Bible, refuting that they support universalism. Then he discusses how 1st century Jews viewed hell and how Jesus spoke about it. This section was probably the most engaging in that it seemed to be the only section where a complete analysis was given rather than a cursory dismissal. Albeit the section suffered from some obvious problems, it was at least bringing some real scholarship to the table. He then moved on to discuss Paul’s letters, to which he didn’t do any justice, and then a few N.T. letters in which really only his analysis of 1 Peter was way off base.

Aside from his lack of really engaging the position he intended to refute, the main problem I had with the book was that it was apologetic. He spent tons of space in the book apologizing for what the Bible says about hell. He kept repeating that he wished it wasn’t the case but that’s just how God is and we need to cope with that. While it is correct that we need to accept that God isn’t whatever we want Him to be, it is another thing to be morally repulsed by God (Francis Chan says that eternal hell makes him sick to the stomach). Chan points out that in Romans 9, Paul says God can ordain people to be vessels of wrath and we cannot judge for we are not God. What Chan misses is that Paul continues that line of thought till Romans 11 where he says that those very same vessels prepared for wrath will be saved, and he claims this is a great mystery of God. For Paul, what we don’t understand about God is actually the mystery of how good He really is. For Chan, it would seem that the mystery of God is that He is not as good as we might want Him to be. What Chan seems to not believe is

1 John 1:5
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.

For Chan it seems we ought to love God in spite of hell, rather than in any way trying to reconcile that hell is ultimately a good thing (light). By holding God’s attributes in tension “Erasing Hell” is really just a statement that God is not as good as we hope and we need to be honest about that. That to me, is far from a biblical message.

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An Authentic Faith

I just finished reading the book “The Authenticity of Faith: The Varieties and Illusions of Religious Experience” by Richard Beck, and while the book revolved around the question of whether religion is simply an illusion we create to buffer our anxieties about evil, meaningless, and our eventual death, something that struck me heavily was this idea of an authentic faith. In order to counter this claim of “unauthenticity” about religion, Beck offers this notion called the “sick soul” experience. The “sick soul” is one whose belief in God increases his/her awareness of evil, randomness, and meaninglessness. For this type of individual, he/she feels abandoned by God, or angry with God. This “sick soul” experience is one which embraces rather than denies face-value reality; and the sick-soul experience is all over the Bible and can be seen through the lives of many Christians (Mother Teresa would be a good example). The prophets, the psalm writers, and even the apostles display this experience, and this experience is important because feelings of abandonment or anger toward God show that the God we believe in is not simply a construct of one’s own desire. These feelings reveal an authentic faith (rather than, as many Christians might have you believe, a weak faith).

But the fact is that the church sugar coats and avoids authentic faith. We sing songs about God’s continual faithfulness. Read stories about how bad things turned out to be good. And we dress up the cross, and the lives of the Biblical figures to avoid the uncomfortable truth that most of the Bible is filled with testaments to the falleness of the world. This life is full of rape, adultery, murder, genocide, religious extermination, torture, starvation, disease, natural disaster. This inauthentic approach to worship and the Bible is summarized well by Steven James in this article that I highly suggest you read:
http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/02/25/my-take-stop-sugarcoating-the-bible/

And don’t get me wrong, there is a place for joy, elation, happiness and positive reinforcing Christianity. It is in fact “the good news”. But it should not become such that we use it as a perpetual blindfold to how the world and people really are. A good example of what kind of angst needs to be more readily accepted in Christianity would be the song “You Found Me” by the Fray. It is a true chronicling of the sick soul experience

I found God
On the corner of First and Amistad
Where the west
Was all but won
All alone
Smoking his last cigarette
I said, “Where you been?”
He said, “Ask anything”.

Where were you
When everything was falling apart?
All my days
Were spent by the telephone
That never rang
And all I needed was a call
That never came
To the corner of First and Amistad

Lost and insecure
You found me, you found me
Lyin’ on the floor
Surrounded, surrounded
Why’d you have to wait?
Where were you? Where were you?
Just a little late
You found me, you found me

This is just the first half of the song (full song http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jFg_8u87zT0&ob=av3e). But the thing about this song is that there is no conclusion, there is no “there was only one set of footsteps because I was carrying you” mentality. Like a lament Psalm, the Fray embraces an authentic faith. That in the face of some of our worst struggles God doesn’t seem to be there. That in the face of life’s evils and unfairness, God remains distant, and this makes us angry, lost and upset. But faith that perseveres even in seeming abandonment is a faith in a God not of our own making. Even Jesus when faced with the very worst this world has to offer, cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Bible is filled with sick souls, I wonder however, whether Christianity today has left much place for them….

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I have been reading through George MacDonald’s Unspoken Sermons Series and it is probably the most profound set of writings I have ever read. I recommend that everyone checks them out. They are free on the Kindle as well as at this website

http://www.online-literature.com/george-macdonald/unspoken-sermons

These are some quotes from the sermon “A Higher Faith” that I read last night

“Sad, indeed, would the whole matter be, if the Bible had told us everything God meant us to believe. But herein is the Bible itself greatly wronged. It nowhere lays claim to be regarded as the Word, the Way, the Truth. The Bible leads us to Jesus, the inexhaustible, the ever unfolding Revelation of God. It is Christ “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” not the Bible, save as leading to him. And why are we told that these treasures are hid in him who is the Revelation of God? Is it that we should despair of finding them and cease to seek them? Are they not hid in him that they may be revealed to us in due time–that is, when we are in need of them? Is not their hiding in him the mediatorial step towards their unfolding in us? Is he not the Truth?–the Truth to men? Is he not the High Priest of his brethren, to answer all the troubled questionings that arise in their dim humanity?”

“Do you count it a great faith to believe what God has said? It seems to me, I repeat, a little faith, and, if alone, worthy of reproach. To believe what he has not said is faith indeed, and blessed. For that comes of believing in HIM. Can you not believe in God himself? Or, confess,–do you not find it so hard to believe what he has said, that even that is almost more than you can do? If I ask you why, will not the true answer be–“Because we are not quite sure that he did say it”? If you believed in God you would find it easy to believe the word. You would not even need to inquire whether he had said it: you would know that he meant it.”

 

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I read an article today about Jennifer Knust who is a biblical scholar who’s latest book “”Unprotected Texts: The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions about Sex and Desire.”  challenges traditional views on premarital sex and homosexuality.

http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-04/scholar-challenges-widely-held-beliefs-about-bible-and-sex

What disturbs me about her thesis however is not that she believes that biblically speaking these issues have been addressed improperly, but that she asserts that “Scripture cannot and should not be a guidebook for sexual morality.” Now I have not read the book so I can only speculate, but I think that this is an unwarranted overreach.

According to the article, the book highlights the sexuality of the Old Testament and the sexual practices within that are not morally condemned, it takes a look at the Songs of Solomon(Songs) and its praising of sexuality. It turns to the New Testament and argues that Paul and other writers have been taken completely out of context. For instance, Paul’s discussion on sexual morality is concerning itself with greek orgy and prostitution culture, but even Paul makes arguments against sexual practices based on respect for self (body is a temple) and association/unity arguments. And the supposed no sex except within marriage argument is absent. However, I am not concerned with the content of her argument against the traditional view ( I myself have sported a critique of sorts in my post “Re-thinking the Sex Question” https://scottpd.wordpress.com/2011/01/05/re-evaluating-the-sex-question/) but her thesis that the bible cannot be used as a guidebook for sexual morality.

If all she means by this is that it cannot be used as a rulebook in the sense of law like statutes I would agree. But a guidebook is something different all together. Simply because the views of sexuality in the Bible are perhaps conflicting at times and about different cultures than today’s that does not warrant that we abandon it and say that the Bible has nothing to say. In fact I think that her view according to the article is that the Bible has been used as a weapon against women concerning sexuality (I would at least partially agree) and the church’s error in this area cannot be allowed to continue, and therefore we should simply avoid biblical arguments on the subject all together. This to me is unacceptable, the Bible has something to say and we should not avoid it because of its tendency to be misused. All scripture has and will continue to be mis-used. It is our obligation to correct it, to put forward a new (but humble) look on the subject. Our job should not be to obfuscate the topic  and claim that  this area is solely up to our intuitions.

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Review of “Love Wins: A Book about Heaven, Hell, And The Fate Of Every Person Who Ever Lived” by Rob Bell

I don’t think I have ever seen a book that stirred up as much controversy within Christian circles as this book (especially since most of it was before the book even came out) so naturally I decided to buy it and see what was really in there and whether it was “universalist”.

What Bell does in this book is build a narrative. He is definitely a proponent of narrative theology and I have to say that I was impressed at Bell’s command over biblical texts and weaving them together. I think that he excelled in this area a lot more than Brian Mclaren did in his “A New Kind of Christianity” and so his book is far more credible. The first chapter is simply a deconstruction of the current view on how one is “saved” he shows that the orthodox, sinners prayer + personal relationship with Jesus does not adequately relate to how the new testament talks about salvation and he suggests that there is something quite different in how Jesus talks about salvation. The second chapter deals with heaven. It is essentially a summary of N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope” and talks about how heaven and earth are connected and heaven is being slowly made on earth and with the second coming will be brought fully to Earth. The third chapter deals with hell. Like heaven, Bell wants to make hell about the here and now just like heaven, he also dispels the images of hell that Christianity has picked up from Dante and others through the years, but he does assert that there is a hell. He proceeds to talk about sovereignty argument for God’s saving all people put puts it in tension with God’s love for humanity allowing us to be free. The book continues on to discuss a finer look at biblical passages, church history etc. The final chapter is essentially a summary of Timothy Keller’s “Prodigal God” but was a very good way to end in my opinion.

Bell’s position is essentially a hopeful (or non dogmatic) Christian universalism. He believes that God does not give up on people ever, but that God never intervenes in such a way that forces someone to be reconciled to Him (that is that if you choose to stay away or come to Him either way “Love Wins”. I call it a hopeful christian universalism because his view, unlike C.S. Lewis’ or N.T. Wright’s does not assume that there are people who will turn against God indefinitely or become ex-human. But looks toward the regeneration of all things and the time when God will be in all. The book makes a strong biblical case for what he is arguing but leaves some of the work to the reader (which is partially what makes it a very readable and accessible book). Since I happen to agree with this position even before reading the book I thoroughly enjoyed that fact that Bell was willing to publish this when the backlash will not be pretty. I highly recommend the book and all the additional readings he lists at the end of the book which pretty much make up the majority of the ideas in the book.

PS: There seems to be a lot of confusion between the idea of “universalism” and  “Christian universalism”. Universalism is the belief that everyone regardless of beliefs or practices goes to heaven (usually associated with Unitarian Universalism). Christian universalism is the belief that through Christ, God will eventually bring about the redeeming of the entirety of creation including all people (but by changing their hearts), its sees hell as corrective in nature and not punitive. See http://www.baptisttimes.co.uk/bellshells.htm

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