Only Love is Credible: a book Review

Brian Zahnd was a big fan of the Angry God. As a young pastor, he carried around a handwritten copy of Sinner’s in the Hands of an ANGRY GOD, Jonathan Edwards’s famous sermon. He memorized portions of the sermon, in order to give preaching more of an edge, so he could draw sinners to repentance as Edwards had done. However, Zahnd since discovered the Father revealed to us through Jesus Christ is not the violent, angry, retributive monster god articulated in Edwards’s sermon.

SinnersWrestling with issues like Old Testament genocide, Jesus crucifixion, eternal punishment in hell, and the final judgment, Zahnd re-presents to us the Christian God—a God who is Love, not wrath. But just because the God Zahnd now preaches is loving, not angry, doesn’t mean he doesn’t deal with sin. We are Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. The monsters are the things that keep us from finding our life in Him. Zahnd writes:

Today my handmade copy of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is stored safely away among other memorabilia. I’m no longer mining it for material to terrorize sinners. The monster god has faded away and today I preach the beauty of God revealed in the face of Christ. But that doesn’t mean there are no monsters.  The monsters of war, violence, greed, exploitation, racism, genocide, and every other form of antihuman abuse continue to inflict  our species with unimaginable suffering. If we try to manipulate these monsters for our own self-interest, they eventually turn on us and destroy us. (22).

Zahnd’s book unfolds in 10 chapters. Chapter 1 describes Zahnd’s shift from believing in the mere angry God, to believing in the loving God. Chapter 2 examines how Jesus closed the book of vengeance by emphasizing the “Jubilee good news of pardon, amnesty, liberation, and restoration” (44) in his reading of the Old Testament.  Chapter 3 discusses the importance of interpreting the violent and troubling passages through the lens of Jesus.

Chapters 4 and 5 discuss the meaning of Christ’s crucifixion. Zahnd eschews interpretations of the cross that appeal to fear-mongering, instead, the cross emphasizes the love of God:

I’m not afraid of God. I used to be, but I am no longer. I am no longer afraid of God because I have come to know God as he is revealed in Christ. I have come to know that God’s single disposition toward me is not one of unconditional, unwavering love. The knowledge of God’s love has made it impossible for me to be afraid of God. (97).

As such, Zahnd does not believe that the Father was a blood-thirsty God demanding Jesus death in order to save some. No, Zahnd argues:

When we say Jesus died for our sins, we mean something like this: We violently sinned our sins into Jesus, and Jesus revealed the heart of God by forgiving our sins. By saying “we” violently sinned our sins into Jesus, I mean that all of us are more or less implicated by our explicit or tacit support of the systems of violent power that frame our world. These are politically religious systems that orchestrated Jesus’s death. At the cross we see how Adam and Eve’s penchant for shifting blame and Cain’s capacity for killing led to the ultimate crime : the murder of God (109).

In chapter 6, Zahnd describes the doctrine of Hell. As with the Angry God, Zahnd used to like Hell a lot but observes that many (evangelical) interpreters make Jesus’ word’s of judgment about the afterlife when he intends to talk about injustice and consequences in this life. He also challenges as fundamentalist fiction the notion that the sufferers of Auschwitz or godly non-Christians (like Abraham Heschel) are consigned to eternal torment (144-45).

chapters 7 through 9, describe Jesus, the Lamb of Revelation and the final judgment. Chapter 10 forms the conclusion: “Love alone is credible.”

Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is similar to other recent books which question the traditional Angry God of evangelicalism. I think of recent publications from Brad Jerzak, Greg Boyd, Thomas Oord, Keith Giles, Rob Bell.  People who love John Piper (and are therefore more Reformed than God) will not like this all that much. If you feel, as many of my Reformed friends, that we are only drawn to God by feeling the weight and cost of our sinfulness, then you won’t enjoy this book. However, if you believe, as I do that, that it is God’s kindness that leads to repentance(Rom.2:4), then you will be challenged and inspired by Zahnd’s words.

Zahnd does emphasize the here and now sometimes at the expense of the Hereafter. Of course, historically evangelicals have done the reverse, speaking only of pie-in-the-sky-when-you-die-when-you-abide-in-the-great-by-and-by. Both this age and the age to come are part and parcel of the gospel of the Kingdom which Jesus preached, and I think it is appropriate to speak of the former alongside the latter. I also wonder if Zahnd under-emphasizes some of God’s anger. It is always the loving who get angry, and I think it makes sense to still speak of an angry God in that context. Still, it is not as though Zahnd ignores human sinfulness and its destructive power for human souls.

I have talked with too many people whose experience of evangelicalism is one of judgment, anger and wrath. I recommend this book (along with books like Brad Jersak’s A More Christlike God) as representative as a more gracious depiction of biblical orthodoxy. I give this four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my honest review

The Twelve Steps of Arrogant Anonymous: a book review

Joan Chittister, OSB is one of our great contemporary spiritual writers. She’s written on hope, liturgy, world religion, peace, feminism and her Wisdom Distilled From the Daily (along with Kathleen Norris’s works) was my gateway drug to Benedictine Spirituality. Her new book, Radical Spirit promises (in the subtitle) 12 ways to live a free and authentic life. If that sounds a little self-helpy, she isn’t waxing eloquent psychobabble about twelve steps to a better you. This twelve step program is cribbed directly from The Rule of Benedict, chapter seven: “The Twelve Steps of Humility.”

RadSpiritusChittister  began her life as a nun in the 1950s and 1960s. She reflects on what she has learned in her experience as a sister in the Benedictine community and the wisdom of the rule. She describes the underlying issue addressed by each step and the spiritual implications for trying to live them out. The chapters titles, follow St. Benedict’s original steps, though Chittister has given the rule a twenty-first century facelift:

  1. Recognize that God is God
  2. Know that God’s will is best for you.
  3. Seek direction from wisdom figures.
  4. Endure the pains of development and do not give up.
  5. Acknowledge faults and strip away masks.
  6. Be content with less than the best.
  7. let go of a false sense of self.
  8. Preserve tradition and learn from community.
  9. Listen.
  10. Never ridicule anyone or anything.
  11. Speak kindly
  12. Be serene, stay calm (205-206).

Benedict wrote his rule in the 6th for monks living in community under an abbot. Chittister’s larger project has been about presenting the wisdom of Benedict to the wider world—oblates, roving Protestants like me, and beyond. Certainly she makes adjustments from the original document (e.g. ‘seek direction from wisdom figures’ was originally ‘we submit to the prioress or abbot in all obedience for the love of God’ and ‘never ridicule anyone or anything’ was originally states ‘we are not given to ready laughter, for it is written, ‘Only fools raise their voices in laughter). But Chittister’s editorial license preserves Benedict’s intent: a Godward, humble spirituality free from anxiety or pretension and released from false images of God and ourselves.

I enjoyed this book as a practical commentary on the Rule. I am not a Benedictine but I’ve learned a lot from that tradition (as has everyone in the Western Spiritual tradition).  Chittister’s prose does meander a bit as she traces out implications for each step. Occasionally I found her difficult to follow and indirect. But there is a lot here that is helpful and instructive. I give this book four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review

Waving Bye and Hi to God: a ★★★★★ book review

This isn’t an apologetics book, though I took from it what I normally get from one (a rationale or some ground for continued belief). Mike McHargue, also known as Science Mike, doesn’t set out to convince you of your spiritual path. Finding God in the Waves is a memoir of McHargue’s own spiritual journey. I love memoirs, especially ones with a Hobbit-like shape ( There and Back Again). McHargue describes both losing his faith, and finding God again (SPOILER ALERT) in the waves. Along the way he shares the scientific and philosophical axioms which allow him to hold on to faith in the face of science, reason and doubt.

sciencemikePodcast listeners will be familiar with Mike McHargue from his Ask Science Mike podcast or from The Liturgists podcast which he does with Michael Gungor. The name Science Mike, a vague discipline combined with his personal name, doesn’t really communicate anything substantial about McHargue’s credentials. It is kind of like calling yourself Humanities Jane, Literature Harry, or Theology Bob. Rob Bell christened him as Science Mike, so what are you going to do?  McHargue’s bio doesn’t tell you what kind of scientist he is (or if he is), you just have his assertion that his years as an atheist, when he could examine evidence without religious ideological lenses, made him a better scientist. Perhaps, but this book is more science-y than anything approaching hard sciences.

McHargue grew up in a devout Southern Baptist family. He said the sinner’s prayer at the age of seven, grew up as an evangelical praying to Jesus and believing. Hormones and playing in a band transformed him from an nerdy fat kid into someone more likeable and cool.  For a season he broke from the church (which frowned on premarital sex), until he fell victim to the flirt and convert. Jennifer Carol Frye, a girl he was smitten with, demanded that if he was serious about her, they attend church together. So he did, trading bar gigs for church camp and a worship band. By the time he was twenty-five, he and Jenny were married and McHargue was serious about his faith.

Then his faith fell apart. The cracks came when his dad left his mom for another woman, after almost thirty years of marriage. McHargue saw no biblical ground for divorce and  wanted God to fix his parents’ marriage. He began reading the bible through at a voracious pace and praying fervently. He noted contradictions in the Bible which he didn’t know were there before (i.e. the differences between the Genesis 1 and 2 creation accounts) and doubts began to form. Reading Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis helped him move past the need to fix his parents marriage and showed him that you could be honest about your doubts in the life of faith.

His Christianity weathered his parents divorce but not its next challenger: Richard Dawkins. An atheist friend got him to read The God Delusion. McHargue read it, along with dozens of other works from skeptics. His faith fell apart, particularly as Dawkins parsed the evidence against answered prayer. He became an atheist albeit a secret one. He had no desire to undermine the faith of his wife or others. He continued to teach Sunday school and be a deacon at his church. Eventually his wife (and mother) uncover his collapsed faith, but he remained a secret atheist to everyone else until he was roped into attending a religious conference put on by Rob Bell.

Remember I mentioned the Hobbit shape of this memoir? McHargue does make it back to the shire of belief, but just as with Bilbo, the landscape changed for him because of the journey. Rob Bell, a beach house and the waves, shake him out of atheism into an Eucharistic encounter with the divine, but he doesn’t return to the fundamentalist, evangelicalism of days of yore. He finds a progressive church that he feels comfortable worshiping in and writes axioms which allow him as believing skeptic to give a rational account of subjective religious experience and its benefit (i.e. the physiological benefits of meditation and contemplative prayer).

I really liked this book and found McHargue’s story a compelling one. I found I could relate to parts of his journey. Like him, my evangelical parents’ marriage dissolved after almost thirty years and I was left there to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of it all. Like him, my reading of books by skeptics and believers alike stretched my understanding of God, the Bible and the life of faith. I haven’t ever walked away from the faith but I know the experience of dissonance between outward expression of faith and doubts swirling around my insides.

McHargue doesn’t provide trite answers to tough question or cherry-picked evidence that demands a verdict. However, his axioms are a starting point for others on their way back to belief. These axioms make smaller and more general claims than the orthodox Christian tradition about God, prayer, the afterlife, salvation, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the church or the Bible. I am unhappy with McHargue’s axioms as guiding principles for life and faith but I  appreciate the way he frames what he says. Each axiom begins by explaining what each element (i.e. God, sin, salvation, etc.) are  “at least.”  He gives skeptics a provisional place to begin their explore God. Just enough.

I give this five stars and highly recommend it. Those who have wrestled with religious doubt will appreciate the honest way that McHargue explores his own doubts. Not every skeptic will be helped by his answers and many believers will wish he voiced things with a little more theological precision and substance; Yet if you have walked this road, you will appreciate the way McHargue names the in-between-places. ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from Blogging For Books in exchange for my honest review.

Evicted: a book review

Food, clothing and shelter occupy the bottom floor of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Housing is basic to our being—a human right. Yet among low-income families, eviction has become a way of life. A lack of livable wage, addictions, financial mismanagement, personal crises, profiteering landlords, rising housing costs are among some of the causes for evictions. And this all compounds bad circumstances making it difficult for people to find other adequate—livable AND affordable housing.

Evevictedicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond follows the experiences of eight families who are evicted from their homes. Desmond is the John Loeb Associate Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University and the co-director of the Justice and Poverty Project. For this project, Desmond conducted Ethnographic research by living as a tenant in College Mobile Home Park, a trailer park on the south-side of Milwaukee before relocating to an apartment building in the north-side’s inner city. In both cases, he shadowed landlords and property managers as they maintained property and handed out evictions. He befriended the people whose stories he shares.

This is an important book, but it isn’t an easy one to read. It is heartbreaking. Desmond tells the story of people at their most vulnerable, and things often go from bad to worse. Mounting bills and an eviction notice have a way of making it difficult for people to pull themselves back up.

Desmond highlights the difficulties faced by low-income families, though he sees this project as contributing to “a robust sociology of housing”:

We need a robust sociology of housing that reaches beyond a narrow focus on policy and public housing. We need a new sociology of displacement that documents the prevalence, causes and consequences of eviction. And perhaps most important we need a committed sociology of inequality that includes a serious study of exploitation and extractive markets. (335).

Desmond doesn’t make the evicted out to be saints nor demonize their landlords. Sometimes the evictee’s own behavior (i.e. failure to pay, addictive behavior, etc.) led to their eviction. Sometimes their landlords tried to work with tenants and gave them plenty of chances.  What Desmond does call attention to here, is to a system that values profit over people and the effect this has on the most vulnerable. People who get evicted have no network of people who are willing and able to help. Not family, not the government, not church.

Most of this book is descriptive, not prescriptive, though Desmond does suggest federal aid for low-income housing via a voucher system in his epilogue. Whether you find this solution compelling, this book is a good window into what challenges poor people face in this country. I give it four stars.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

The Write Man Was Convicted: a book review

Shaka Sengor was guilty. He killed a man in cold blood during a dispute over a drugs. He was convicted of murder in the second degree and went to prison for fifteen to fourty years. For much of his sentence he was not a model inmate. He had a botched escape attempt under his belt. He spent time in solitary (the hole) for assaulting prison guards. But during his nineteen years in prison he was transformed through reading, spiritual practice, and ultimately by writing his wrongs:  practicing the cathartic self reflection of journaling, writing fiction and letters.

27297084Despite Sengor’s guilt, don’t think for a moment that he wasn’t a  victim. Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison tells the story of his childhood, his experience of abuse, and his broken home, and how he was seduced into the drug trade. It also tells the story of the anger and fear he felt when he was shot as a seventeen year old and the lack of compassion he experienced from physicians and law enforcement. The experience made him afraid and angry enough to carry a gun. At nineteen, he killed a man aduring a drug transaction (Senghor was a crack dealer).

The injustice Senghor faced inside Michigan’s prisons is harrowing. He was the victim of systemic injustice and racism from prison guards. He witnessed the horrows of prison rape. He participated in violence. He experienced the psychological wounding of four-and-a-half years in solitary confinement after he assaulted a guard (his confrontation with the guard was a n0-win-situation).

Ultimately this book is a story of hope. Senghor comes to own his past, and the things he did wrong. He doesn’t make excuses for himself, but sets out to make amends through writing, community activism and mentoring youth. He finds love with an ctivist he begins a correspondence with. His transformation began mid-way through his prison sentence when the godmother of his victim wrote to him asking the why question. Senghor wrote back his regret and she forgave him. That began a correspondence (described in the prologue and afterword of this book). That set the stage for Senghor to grow and change.

I like memoirs and this is a good one. It is a compelling story. I recommend the book, but issues caution to readers which would be disturbed by violence (and language). Some of the events described are ugly: rape, feces fights, violence, abject racism. This may be difficult for some readers to take. Other books, such as Michelle Alexander,s The New Jim Crow or Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy tell the tale of of our broken legal system. This is an insider’s experience. I give this book four stars.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review.

And it was Very Good: a ★★★★★book review

A number of recent publications have helped us enlarge our frame of what the gospel is beyond ‘pie in the sky in the great by-and-by.’ Lisa Sharon Harper’s The Very Good Gospel (Waterbrook Press, forthcoming June 2016) is one such book. Harper helps us see the expansive implications of the biblical concept of shalom (peace). Our contemporary concept of peace is deficient—our imagination forged in the eras of Cold War stalemates and our tenuous Post-9/11 world cries for ‘peace in the middle east.’ The biblical concept of peace is more robust than the mere cessation of conflict. It involves good news to the poor and oppressed, justice for all, and “God’s vision for the emphatic goodness of all relationships” (14-15). In short shalom means that everything wrong can be made right.

27177624Harper’s voice is one I trust. I have read her online articles at Sojourners (where she is the chief church engagement officer), and The Huffington Post and I follow her on social media. With Leroy Barber she was on the ground in Ferguson training clergy on how to respond to the crisis. She is a passionate advocate for social justice tackling racism, economic injustice and systemic oppression. As an African American woman she brings perspective and insight to these issues; however, what also makes The Very Good Gospel so very good is her deeply rooted faith and her serious engagement with biblical theology.

Harper draws on the insights of Walter Bruggemann (who writes the forward), Miroslav Volf, and a host of other scholars, commentators and researchers). In this book she unfolds the biblical concept of shalom. She explores what it means to live at peace with God, and to live at peace with self,  to have real peace between the genders, to live at peace by exercising proper dominion in creation, to bring peace to broken families,  to have real peace between races and nations, what it means for Christians be witnesses to God’s kingdom peace, and to have peace in the face of death.

This book goes a long way toward helping us see how robust Shalom really is. Harper blends personal anecdotes from life and ministry with biblical theology and astute cultural analysis. She shares some of the ways she has seen (or experienced firsthand) the lack of peace, and where shalom has burst into our broken world. She has practical suggestions for how to live into God’s kingdom shalom. Harper shares painful moments and touching and poignant parts of her own journey (such as her final goodbye to fellow evangelical justice advocate Richard Twiss). This is a very good book and it oozes good news. Read it. I give it an enthusiastic five stars! ★★★★★

Note: I received this book from Waterbrook Multnomah through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my honest review.


Today Was a Good Day: a book review

We all want to have a good day, but we also have our share of bad ones. Those days where we don’t get done what we set out to do, we feel like we are spinning our wheels. when we feel anxious and stressed out and don’t navigate our relationships well. We feel low energy and give up when we see no path forward. But what if there was a way to have a good day or at least make the most of the ones we have? in How to Have a Good Day, executive coach and management consultant Caroline Webb draws on the insights of behavioral science to give us seven-building blocks for a good day. These include priorities, productivity, relationships, thinking, influence, resilience, energy. These building blocks are the components of what people describe as a good day.

HaveaGoodDayIn her introduction, Webb probes the components that make up ‘a good day.’ This gives shape to the rest of her book (the seven building blocks described above). Webb draws on “rigorous scientific evidence from psychology, behavioral economics and neuroscience.” Her purpose is to “translate all that science into step-by-step techniques for imporving your day-to-day life (5). She does this by presenting research, giving practical advice and sharing stories. Her focus throughout the book is on the business world. So are her examples. However a broad application of these principles can be made to other aspects of life.

Each section of this book is one of the building blocks of a good day. Part one is about setting priorities and being intentional in work and life. Part two discusses productivity. This is the longest section of the book and Webb covers the importance of ‘single tasking,’ planning deliberate down time, overcoming overload and beating procrastination. Part three discusses how to manage relationships well. Part four probes how to be more creative, wise and intelligent at work. Part five explores how to influence and maximize impact on others. Part six describes what resilience looks like in the face of setbacks, hard times and annoyances. Part seven puts the pieces together, and describes how to approach live with energy and enthusiasm. A postscript includes three appendixes with suggestions for how to have a good meeting, how to be good at email and how to reinvigorate your routine.

The whole book is helpful. I especially liked the productivity section and the relationships  and influence sections. Chapter four, on single tasking explodes the myth of multi-tasking. Webb argues convincingly that though multi-tasking makes your day more interesting, actually reduces productivity (72). While some people (a tiny single digit percentage of people) are ‘supertaskers’ able to process multiple tasks at the same time, the vast majority of us work slower when our attention is divided among too many things. Webb points out the irony that “the people who are most confident of their ablity to multitask, are in fact the worst at it” (73).  So Webb offers practical suggestions for ‘batching tasks and zoning your days. In the relationship and influence sections, Webb offers a number of practical suggestions for handling difficult people and motivating others through positive communication.

This is one of those business self-help books. But don’t let that turn you off. Because Webb roots her practical suggestions in research, there is substance to her message. This isn’t fluffy. It also isn’t super technical (she explains her terms and a glossary also gives working definitions of psychological terms. Her seven domains are more comprehensive and inclusive than your ‘seven habits’type books. The twenty one chapters each offer several suggestions for habits, though some of these stack on top of each other (i.e. chapter five’s discussion of deliberate downtime and mindful practices is reinforced in the section on resilience).

I give this book four stars and think that this is a helpful for leader, managers, executives, or really anyone that wants more good days. Of course each section of the book can delve deeper than Webb in fact does (she includes suggestions for further reading). but I have no real complaints. This is a great book. Having finished it, my day is already better and there is a lot worth practicing here.

Note: I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for my honest review