Book Review: Accidental Saints by Nadia Bolz-Weber

Several months ago I responded to a review by Tim Challies (actually a scathing diatribe very thinly disguised as a book review) of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s Accidental Saints:  Finding God in All the Wrong People.  I had not read it then, but I had a very strong suspicion that it took a tremendous amount of imagination and creativity to get from whatever was in the book to what Challies was saying about it.  I have now had the opportunity to actually read the book, and my suspicions have been more than confirmed.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor out in Denver, Colorado.  There is much about her story to plunge the evangelical gag reflexes into overdrive.  For starters, she is a female pastor in a church that ordains female pastors and that may be reason enough for many of you to check out right here and now.  She has tattoos.  She cusses.  For many of you, that is probably not your style.  She and her strain of Lutheranism have progressive political commitments which may make your stomach churn.  But if you can stick it out, you will be rewarded with a tale of raw, unvarnished grace from one who is desperately aware of her need for God.

The book is a series of stories drawn from Bolz-Weber’s life and the life of her congregation–a motley band of misfits drawn together by a common dependence upon Jesus Christ revealed in their midst through Word and Sacrament according to the Lutheran tradition of which they are a part.  In each of these stories God shows up in unexpected ways, through unexpected encounters with the last people you would expect to be used by God.  We see a pastor desperately in need of God and honest enough to admit it.  We see the process of transformation in her life as she repeatedly encounters God in the last places she would expect, through the last people she would expect.

There is the story of how she reluctantly agreed to speak at a Lutheran youth conference, and then wound up on the plane sitting next to a teenage girl who was on her way to the same conference, and as she was drawn into this girl’s story it nudged her to get over herself.  There is the story of how she was sitting with a bishop friend at a denominational convention, snarkily critiquing the air conditioning and the opening music, only to suddenly find herself in way over her head trying to minister to a man who was going through an excruciating season of grief and loss.

And then there is the story which contains the formulation of Christ’s atonement to which Challies objects so strenuously:  “God gathers up all our sin, all our broken-ass junk, into God’s own self and transforms all that death into life. Jesus takes our crap and exchanges it for his blessedness.”  This occurs within the larger context of a story of how she had shitlisted a parishioner because she felt uncomfortable around him and was unsure of his motivations for wanting to be part of her congregation.  Then she wound up having to officiate his funeral.  When a family member came up to her after the service and spoke of how much her church had meant to him in his final months, she describes her reaction as follows:

There it was.  A blessed exchange.  My crap for Jesus’ mercy.

I will never know Larry.  I’ll never know what it is like to love him, to see him, to know what the source of his tenderness toward his wife was or from where he drew his strength in his final days.  That is all lost to me.  But for some reason our congregation was a place of comfort for him.

Sometimes God needs stuff done, even though I can be a real asshole.  There is absolutely no justice in the fact that Larry loved me and that church.  But if I got what I deserved in this life, I’d be screwed–so instead, I receive that grace for what it is: a gift.

It is all well and good to sit in judgment of someone because their formulation of the atonement does not line up with what is in the doctrinal statement on file down at your church’s or denomination’s front office.  But at the end of the day, doctrine and theology have to be lived out in real life.  For it is in real life that we bump up against real people, who are the means by which God transforms us into Christlikeness.  If your theology has nothing to say to the real world in which real people live and move and breathe, then you need to change your theology.

This book is all about a pastor and a congregation who are desperately aware of their need for God, who routinely experience Jesus in their midst in the most unexpected ways, through the most unexpected people.  If you can get past the cussing, the progressive politics, and all the other things which cause a conservative evangelical stomach to churn, you will see that Jesus is very much alive and well on the streets of Denver.

And in the churning of your stomach, perhaps you will find God working on you.  Surprising you, jarring you out of your old comfortable prejudices, opening your eyes to see His life and His grace in the very last places you would expect to see it.

Book Review: Morgan Guyton, How Jesus Saves The World From Us

Today I wish to direct your attention to a book that seems intriguing to me, which I have not yet had the opportunity to read but hope to one day.  It is by Morgan Guyton and is entitled “How Jesus Saves the World from Us: 12 Antidotes to Toxic Christianity“.  Click the link and you can see more about it, read the introduction, and even order a copy for yourself if you are interested.

Guyton is a fairly influential voice in the world of progressive Christianity.  He and his wife are campus ministers at the NOLA Wesley Foundation, the United Methodist campus ministry at Tulane and Loyola University in New Orleans, LA.  Guyton blogs at Mercy Not Sacrifice.

The big idea in this book is that the loudest voices coming out of the Christian world today sound almost exactly like the voices of the religious leaders who had Jesus crucified two thousand years ago.  Guyton identifies twelve toxic attitudes prevalent in Christianity today and their antidotes.  In the introduction, he laments that though there is beautiful and genuine Christian faith to be found in every generation, it seems like it is always the loudest, meanest voices that get all the attention.  He then asks a poignant and disturbing question:  How would Christians live differently if we believed that Jesus needs to save the world from us?

For now, I would like for you to just sit with that question.  Meditate on it, and ask yourselves who we resemble more:  those who turned the world upside-down through lives of unexpectedly self-giving love, to the point of being willing to die so that the love of Christ might flow through them to a world desperately in need of it–or those who had Jesus crucified out of allegiance to God in order to preserve their religious system and way of life?

Book Review: Yann Martel, Beatrice and Virgil

Every once in a while, I come across a book that thoroughly captures my imagination and causes me to wish that I had written it.  Included in this category are Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis, The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan, The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton, and Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

Life of Pi tells the story of an Indian adolescent boy named Pi Patel, who, along with a full-grown Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, are the sole survivors of a shipwreck that claimed the lives of his family and all the other animals of their zoo.  They were in the process of relocating from India to Canada; Pi Patel and Richard Parker continue this journey all by themselves in one of the ship’s lifeboats.  This is an incredibly complex story that is equal parts survival story, coming-of-age story, philosophy textbook, and comparative religion treatise.

Finally, ten years later, Yann Martel has followed up that story with another which is just as impressive.  A donkey, a howler monkey, a struggling writer, a taxidermist, and the Holocaust all come together in an amazingly unlikely tale.

A writer who published a hugely successful first novel several years ago struggles to find inspiration for a follow-up work.  He comes up with the idea of a flip-book on the Holocaust:  one side would be a fictional story and the other would be a nonfiction essay; both would end at the middle.  This is his attempt to remedy what he sees as a problem:  not many people are writing about the Holocaust, and the ones who are, are producing nothing but autobiographical narratives of their own personal Holocaust stories.  He has little success pitching this work to prospective publishers.

He then receives an unsolicited manuscript from a taxidermist who has written a play and wants him to look over it.  Reluctantly, he agrees to do so.  This play is all about a donkey named Beatrice and a howler monkey named Virgil, and their unlikely friendship.  It hits upon many of the themes that emerged from the Holocaust, but in a very unorthodox way.  He is intrigued by this play, and he begins to get to know the taxidermist.  And then very weird and disturbing things start to happen.  (I’m not going to tell you what they are.  You’ll have to read the book.)

This work stands as an excellent follow-up to Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  It approaches the Holocaust in a very fresh and unusual way that forces us to reexamine many of the themes coming out of it; you are hardly even aware that you are reading about the Holocaust until you are well into it.  I strongly recommend this book.

Book Review: Allen Hunt, Confessions of a Megachurch Pastor

The Roman Catholic Church has seen a sizeable influx of evangelicals over the course of recent decades.  This has changed the complexion of Catholicism here in America, as these evangelical newcomers have held forth all the major Catholic distinctives in ways that are decidedly evangelical.

Among these evangelical emphases is the importance of a strong personal testimony, a compelling story of what God is doing in a person’s life and how God has led that person to the Catholic Church.

That is exactly what you will get in Allen Hunt’s Confessions of a Megachurch Pastor.

Many of you (around these parts, at least) will recognize Hunt as the former pastor of Mount Pisgah United Methodist Church in Alpharetta, GA.  Hunt served at a very pivotal time in this church’s history; under his leadership it grew to over 15,000 weekly attenders, making it by far the largest Methodist church in Georgia and one of the largest in the world.

Prior to all that, he had a nice cushy job with a very prestigious management consulting firm.  One day he was in New York on business, and as he entered the office building where he was going he stepped over a homeless person lying on a grate in the street to keep warm.  It was then that he had an epiphany; he realized that he had spent his life up to that point serving himself and his own plans and that that would have to change.

So he started down a path that would take him through seminary and on to the pastorate of Mount Pisgah.  But eventually, the strains of dealing with denominational politics and certain nagging questions that would not go away pushed him to a place where he felt that he could no longer lead with integrity.  So he resigned.  He then converted to Catholicism.  He is now the host of a nationally syndicated radio talk show which is unique in that it deals with questions of religion and morality as they apply to real life.

In telling his story, Hunt likens the Catholic Church to an old, historic house in which every room is filled with hidden treasure.  He takes us on a guided tour of all the rooms of this house, showing us all the different aspects of the Catholic faith and how they intersect with his life.

In many evangelicals who convert to Catholicism, their journey is motivated by the question, “What is the true Church?”  Eventually, they reach the conclusion that Protestantism doesn’t have a leg to stand on because its authority and leadership is not connected to the Apostles or anyone commissioned by the Apostles or anyone commissioned by someone who was commissioned by someone who was commissioned by someone who…you get the idea, and if you go far enough back you eventually get to someone who was commissioned by the Apostles.  We see this question as one of the prominent motivators in Hunt’s journey.

Without getting too deeply into it at this time, suffice it to say that this question is not on my radar.  Protestants answer the true Church question by saying that the One True Church consists of all bodies of believers where the Word of God is faithfully preached and the sacraments are rightly administered (I believe this is a distinctly Lutheran formulation), and I am satisfied with this.

At the end of the book, Hunt issues a challenge to Protestants to examine what it is that they are protesting:

Martin Luther, John Calvin, and King Henry [Henry VIII of England] broke with the Church for reasons that were very important to them.  Their decisions broke the unity of the one catholic, apostolic, and holy Church.  Since then, Protestants have fractured into more than 33,000 branches and streams of the faith.  Examine your own life.  Do some reading about beliefs.  Take a moment to decide whether you have a really good reason to be separated from the One true Church that Jesus desired for us in His prayer in John 17.

This is a challenge which I heartily accept.  Look for a series of posts on the key Protestant distinctives that I believe are worth holding on to, which will be appearing sometime this summer (or earlier).

In the meantime, allow me to commend to your attention this post by Scot McKnight on the reasons why he remains an evangelical Protestant despite the lack of spiritual substance or vitality in present day evangelicalism.

And this post by Alastair at Adversaria, which is his thoughts on denominationalism in the Church.  He offers his thoughts on how churches of different denominations can cooperate in a meaningful fashion, and closes by saying that the denominationalism of our present day (allow me to point out that this was NOT the original intent of Luther, Calvin, et al, but rather a tragic consequence of their attempts to reform the Church) may actually prove to be a blessing in disguise as it leads, at some point in the distant future, to a more glorious state of union that includes a diversity of expressions of the Christian faith that would never have been possible otherwise.

Book Review: Garry Wills, What The Gospels Meant

If you are interested in a refreshingly different take on how the Gospels show us Jesus Christ, then I strongly recommend What The Gospels Meant by Garry Wills.

Wills is a political columnist whose work appears in newspapers all over the country on a syndicated basis.  He has written many books over the years, chiefly about religion, politics, and political history.  He is currently an emeritus professor of history at Northwestern University.

In this book, Wills’ big idea is that though the Gospels are truthful accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus, the Gospel writers had other priorities than the strict factual, chronological, and historical accuracy which we evangelicals so dearly cherish.  The Gospels are historical, but more in the sense that Gone With the Wind is historical than in the sense that your American history textbook is historical.  The Gospel writers did not go around digging up birth certificates, death certificates, baptismal records, etc. nor did they spend hours at the library poring over primary source documents.  Instead, their accounts arose from the unique communities of faith that each writer was a part of.  Each Gospel account was shaped by that community, the memories and recollections of Jesus that were passed on within that community, and the unique issues, concerns, and emphases of each community.

The Gospel of Mark was the first one written, about thirty years after the death of Jesus.  It was written for the encouragement of a community of believers that was beset by persecution from without and divisions within–opposition from Jewish Zealots who seized the Temple in 67 AD and drove them to the hills of Syria, and from Judaizers who sought to insist upon observance of Jewish law.  Thus the emphasis of the Gospel of Mark is upon the suffering Jesus.  If Jesus suffered so much for being who he was, then of course his followers should be expected to suffer too.

Matthew wrote his Gospel for a community of believers that was centered around Antioch.  This was a well-developed center of the Christian faith during the latter part of the first century AD, one which contained a good mix of Jewish and Gentile believers.  It even had its own school of Christian training–a first-century seminary, if you will.  There is much about the Gospel of Matthew which indicates that it may have been used for teaching and learning in this environment.

Luke had a keen interest in reconciliation.  He shows us the kinder, gentler side of Jesus through his encounters with women, a very low-ranking class in first-century society, and through such moving stories as those of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son.  He also had a liturgical bent; the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24 follows the outline of a liturgy that was used in his community of believers.

John’s Gospel focuses on the mystical side of Christ.  From the get-go, he describes Jesus as the Word of God who has come into the world.  Wills advances a view that will probably arouse disagreement from many evangelicals–that John was probably not the author of the Gospel of John.  Instead, John (the disciple whom Jesus loved) formed a school of Christian teaching devoted to passing on what he had learned from Jesus.  The Gospel of John was written by a couple of people from within this school who were very close to John and very strongly influenced by his teachings.

Wills brings it all together by noting that we need all four Gospels.  Life would be a whole lot easier for us in the face of atheistic critiques (which are oh-so-quick to note the contradictions and inconsistencies in the Gospel accounts) if we had just one Gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry.  But attempts to pick one Gospel and discard the others (such as Marcion’s second-century assertion that only the Gospel of Luke was genuine), or to combine the best parts of all four Gospels into one coherent, consistent narrative (such as Tatian’s Diatesseron), have failed to gain any traction.

There is a reason for this.  The four Gospels show us four different aspects of Jesus.  If we lacked any of them then our view of Jesus would be incomplete.  If we were to attempt to harmonize them into one consistent narrative, then the resulting view of Jesus would be incomplete.  A quote from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy best sums it up:  “He has always cared more for truth than consistency.  If he saw two truths that seemed to contradict each other, he would take the two truths and the contradiction along with them.”

We must apply this to our reading of the Gospels.  With the four Gospels we get multiple truths and multiple inconsistencies.  In order to gain a full revelation of Jesus Christ we must care more for truth than consistency; we must be willing to take the truths that all of the different Gospels show us along with the apparent inconsistencies.

Book Review: George Cunningham, Decoding the Language of God

Can a scientist really be a believer?  George Cunningham answers this question with a resounding No.

An accomplished geneticist, Cunningham now writes for a broader audience in this rebuttal to Francis Collins’ 2006 book The Language of God.  Cunningham deconstructs the chief arguments used by Collins to make the case for belief in the Christian God, and attempts to show that these arguments don’t necessarily lead to the same conclusions that Collins has reached.

Cunningham does an excellent job of presenting complex scientific concepts in a manner which is accessible to the layperson.  His points are well laid out, and it is easy to follow the flow of his arguments.

Cunningham begins with an account of his own personal faith journey–how he grew up in the Catholic church, how he studied science and found it to be inconsistent with religious belief, specifically the question of miracles and the problem of evil, and how he ultimately stopped believing.

One of the key issues here is the problem of evil.  How can a good God permit evil in this world?  A goodly portion of the evil in the world exists because God gave humans free will.  But what kind of God would give humans free will, knowing the evil and suffering that would result?

Next, Cunningham turns to morality–the idea that some things are right and others are wrong.  Cunningham takes issue with the idea that there is a Moral Law created by God which guides humans’ views of what is right and wrong, and argues instead that this is a product of nature and culture.

Next, Cunningham looks at cosmology.  Does the Big Bang point inexorably toward God?  Do the finely tuned physical constants of the universe point inexorably toward a God who is working things for the creation of human life?  Not necessarily.

Next Cunningham questions the validity of the Bible and concludes that the weight of scholarly analysis shows it to be unreliable as a historically accurate description of events.  Looking at the New Testament alone, there is a gap of at least thirty to fifty years between the events depicted in the Gospels and the appearance of the first portions of what would ultimately become the New Testament.  Cunningham contends that this is ample time for legends and fantastic distortions of the truth to crop up (don’t know if I would agree with that).

The debate between belief and atheism is one which has been taking place between people much smarter than myself for a very long time.  It is not the place of this book review to attempt to settle this debate, or to provide the definitive response to the arguments for atheism–or for belief, for that matter.  Collins’s book did not settle the debate between belief and atheism, and neither will this book.

Christians, you would do well to consider this book because the arguments which Cunningham makes are arguments which you will come across at some point in your life, if you have not already.  You need to engage this material honestly and know why you believe what you believe.  And even if you read this and become convinced that it is no longer reasonable to believe in God…well, better an honest unbeliever than a believer who is lying to himself or herself.

[The reviewer was furnished with a copy of this book.]

Book Review: Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell, a writer and essayist for The New Yorker magazine, is best known for The Tipping Point, in which he challenged our most deeply held assumptions about how the world works and showed us that seemingly little things can make a very big difference.  In his follow-up, Blink, he challenged our dearest notions about thought itself and showed that in many situations it only takes a very short time–the blink of an eye, if you will–to gather all of the information necessary to make good decisions.

In Outliers, Gladwell is at it again.  This time he challenges our most deeply-held beliefs about success–namely that it is almost exclusively the result of factors within an individual, such as innate talent or drive or motivation.  External factors have a lot to do with success–much more than we are willing to admit.

Gladwell starts off with the example of Canadian junior league hockey.  Now, hockey is the national pastime in Canada and their youth league system is set up to make sure that the best of the best will rise to the top.  Right?  Well…it’s a little more complicated than that.  If you look at the players at the very top of the junior league system, the ones who will in all likelihood go on to play professional hockey, you will find that a disproportionate majority have birthdays in January, February, and March.  It would seem that there is some sort of astrological phenomenon at work where prospective hockey players with birthdays in these three months are blessed with unusually prodigious amounts of talent.  But the causes of this phenomenon are actually more man-made than that.  Children are eligible to start junior-league hockey at age 9, and the cutoff date is January 1.  Because of this, children with birthdays in the months immediately after the cutoff date get to start earlier than children with birthdays in the months immediately before the cutoff date.  This results in a pronounced advantage for children with birthdays in January, February, or March–which only accumulates as these children move through the program and on to the higher levels of competition.

It has been found, Gladwell notes, that in order to attain mastery of any skill–whether a sport, a musical instrument, a game, an artistic discipline, or a profession–one must spend at least 10,000 hours practicing this skill.  This is true regardless of one’s level of innate talent, ambition, drive, motivation, or whatever.  Gladwell gives the examples of the Beatles–who, because they happened to have the opportunity to go to Liverpool and were in a position where they had to perform in order to make a living, were able to log the requisite 10,000 hours of musical performance–and Bill Gates, who, because of where he went to school, the connections that this school and its parents had, and the time during which he was growing up, was able to log the 10,000 hours necessary to attain mastery of computer programming.

All of this goes to show that external factors, such as place and time of birth, play a large role in the phenomenon of success–a much bigger role than we are accustomed to giving them credit for.

Gladwell presents ideas which force us to think in new ways about things we thought we understood.  He is an excellent storyteller and his writing is very compelling; once you pick up one of his works you will find it very hard to put down.  If you are prepared to call into question everything you thought you knew about success and about what it takes to be successful, then I strongly recommend Outliers.