Book :: A Beautiful Hell

Release Date: September 24, 2013

Somewhere around 9 months ago, my then-5-year-old started asking questions about hell – or as he puts it “Satan’s place;” a place that he definitely does not want to go. And somehow, despite spending my whole life in church, along with years of Christian school and a graduate degree in Christian ministry, I didn’t feel confident in talking to him about it. My initial take was: let’s focus on the good stuff, not the bad stuff. If you’re on track with the good stuff, then you won’t have to worry about the bad. But around that same time, I began stumbling across some different thinking on the topic that got me really interested in learning more. So, while it’s not been a consistent topic of study, it has been on the radar for a while.

A few weeks ago I found myself looking for some reading on the sub-topic of conditional immortality. I was unwilling to spend the money to purchase what some consider to be the definitive work on the topic – Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes – and was fortunate enough to discover Nathan J. Anderson’s A Beautiful Hell trilogy. The collection, which easily could have been produced in a single volume, includes The Myths of Hell (Book 1), The Ache for Paradise (Book 2), and Does Hell Really Last Forever? (Book 3).

The author sets about with a single aim: to answer the question, “that has been haunting [him] for thirty years. What is it about Jesus’ death that saves us from hell?” He then structures his writing around finding answers that uncover deeper questions, answering those questions and finding more. He works this through from understanding what hell is and isn’t (Book 1) to why Jesus came and what his death accomplished (Book 2). He suggests that Book 3 is one that he had no interest in writing, but that his discoveries throughout the process seemed to demand it of him. The writing is academic, but still conversant and thought it may seem highly theoretical, the practical implications of his conclusions are nothing less than life-changing.

I have to say that this is one of the most fantastically well-researched books I’ve ever read. The author digs deep to uncover the various words in the original languages that we see translated as “hell” in our modern Scriptures, along with the variety of other terms and euphemisms that feed into the topic. I was fantastically grateful for his lengthy discussion on the rise of the “classical” position on immortality and hell that developed during the inter-testamental period in which he focused both on the Apocryphal writings and the Greek philosophers.

I felt that Book 1 was the strongest of the three – perhaps because it was the one that I most agreed with. The author brought a lot of clarity to the positions that I was already feeling drawn to, but we did not land precisely on the same opinions regarding some of the Book 2 topics. I appreciated his evaluation of the various atonement theories (another topic of great interest), but I think that there are some nuanced sub-points where we are not in alignment… and I think that the author would be ok with that.

For some, this is not a critical topic – especially when you get down deep into the sub-theories. Most religious institutions would hold this as a “secondary” matter; that is, one that is not critical to faith. While I agree with that, as I outlined in the beginning, this is a critical topic for me. Beyond understanding how to talk to my children, I’ve found over the last 9 months that my understanding of topics such as atonement, the (im)mortal nature of the soul, as well as the nature of both heaven and hell have a far-reaching impact on my faith and practice.

Book :: The Divine Magician

Release Date: Jan. 20, 2015

When I first encountered author Peter Rollins in 2006, I loved his approach to thought and theology, but I mostly disagreed with him (even when I wanted to agree). Revisiting his work in 2013 and picking up his then-latest book The Idolatry of God, I was able to read with fresh eyes and found him to be saying – sometimes word-for-word – exactly what I had been thinking.

In reading Rollins, one thing has become clear to me: you can’t read him for what you think he is saying. There is a lot of semantic overlap in his language and he intentionally keeps it vague to force the reader to challenge his own preconceptions. As such, when something he writes conflicts with what you may believe, it is imperative that you not immediately dismiss his conclusions, but consider them all the more deeply.

In The Divine Magician, Rollins expands and clarifies a concept that is at the heart of his previous work, The Idolatry of God. Here he forms a more cogent, precise, and graspable argument by focusing on the process of magician’s illusion as the backdrop for his theory. Fans of Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige film will immediately understand this process as it is described. Those unfamiliar with the analogy are helped along by the author’s conversational style and an ample amount of diagrams.

It would be fruitless for me to attempt to boil down the author’s 200 pages into a mere 200 words, and to try would be to do everyone involved a great disservice. In a recent interview, however, the author summarized the work as such:

One thing that both the critics of religion and its defenders seem to agree on concerns what Christianity actually is. To paint with broad brushstrokes, they agree that it involves a belief in God, the idea that we can reconnect with this God, and the notion that this reconnection will re-establish a lost harmony. The former attacks these ideas, the latter defends them.

In contrast, The Divine Magician presents a radically different reading of Christianity. One unconcerned with what people believe, that is not about reconnecting with some ultimate source, and that is most certainly not caught up in re-establishing a lost harmony. What people will find within the pages of this book is an unapologetically this-worldly reading of Christianity, one that views the subversive heart of the gospels as nothing less than an insurrectionary invitation to become a cultural dissident who challenges the status-quo, embraces the world and has the audacity to embrace freedom.

 I really enjoyed this book, but I felt a little underwhelmed because I had just re-read Idolatry only a couple of months ago and didn’t find this new work to unearth any great new revelations. That said, here Rollins provides much better language for his readers to convey these ideas to others. Further, it is clear that the author himself has further solidified his own (non)understanding.

Having recently finished What We Talk About When We Talk About God (Rob Bell) and A Farewell to Mars (Brian Zahnd), I found several welcomed streams of continuity present in Magician. At one point, Rollins echoes Bell’s praise of the Alcoholics Anonymous community as a place where people embrace their “lack” or their incompleteness rather than fantasizing about a more perfect union unto themselves. Rollins also spends a good number of pages investigating the scapegoat mentality discussed at length by Zahnd. If there is a single concept that warrants more discussion by all parties – those who agree and disagree with both authors – it is this idea that we must cease our blaming, vilifying, and ostracizing of the “other”.  As such, I’ll end with this quote,

In order to destroy the scapegoat mechanism, a different strategy must be adopted. Instead of trying to create a community where there is no outsider, the real answer lies in understanding that there is a sense in which we are all outsiders. In concrete terms, this means that a community faces its own lack, rather than ignoring it and thus creating a scapegoat who must carry it.

The Divine Magician, 46

Book :: Our Great Big American God

Somehow I avoided Church History and still got out of seminary with a degree. This year, however, I’ve found a rising interest in the topic. When I burned out of Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation around page 150 (halfway through Chapter 2), I was looking for something a little more digestible. It was then that I discovered Matthew Paul Turner’s Our Great Big America God (in stores Aug 19).

For the last decade, Turner has developed a strong voice in Christian circles through his blog and over a dozen published books. Perhaps a bit liberal-leaning for some, he has still managed to carve out a significant niche of followers. His latest work is very much ideologically in line with what he has presented throughout his career – though this work takes on a much more academic bent.

Our Great Big American God, tracks the development of the idea of God throughout the past four centuries of American history. Beginning at Plymouth Rock and travelling all the way to present-day America’s Christian subculture, Turner looks at the personalities, denominations, and cultural beliefs that have shaped America and her people’s view of God.

The book begins by asking an often-unspoken – but no less pointed – question:

Can the God of American Christianity be both the God of the Quakers and the God who is worshiped by gun-fanatical evangelicals? Is God pro-life or pro-choice, pro-birth control or pro-natural family planning, pro-war or pro-peace, pro-Israel or pro-Palestine, pro-gay or pro-straight?

Never making a specific argument for or against any particular position, the author tells the story of God in America and how diametrically opposed sides – all earnest in their theology and hermeneutics – have argued their position as being “God’s position.”

While Turner never makes an explicit statement of his personal position on any of the topics that he discusses, his personality certainly comes through. Those familiar with his work will recognize his style in the writing itself. Those who are unfamiliar will likely find themselves put at ease and drawn in by the way he turns a topic that could be overly academic into something thoroughly engaging and relevant. Chapters often open or close with present-day contexts or the implications of the movements discussed within the chapter.

Some may feel that the overall tone of the book is a bit skeptical, those who know the author however will know that his skepticism comes from a place of deep love for the Church. As he said in the interview I conducted with him “I didn’t write a book for ‘progressive Christian thinkers.’ It’s written by a progressive thinker and so that’s there, but I tried to keep it on a leash.”

As I read, I found myself quite astounded and never wanting to put the book down. Despite my background of Christian school and seminary, much of the content was new to me. Specifically of interest were portions that outlined closely held evangelical doctrines that were shown to be relatively young relative to the history of Christian faith (see specifically portions regarding John Nelson Darby). I suspect that many life-long church-goers will find themselves surprised by some of the behind-the-scenes drama American Christian heritage.

I’ve been talking to people about this book for the last two months and I’m so glad that it’s finally available. This is easily my book recommendation of the year. It is insightful, funny, and heavy; encouraging, challenging, and heartbreaking at times. It’s a book for everyone in the Church. Truly, “must read.”

Book :: Who’s Afraid of Relativism?

“‘Relativism’ can mean many different things. We usually trot out the word as an epithet that is synonymous with anything-goes nihilism. But in so doing … we us the word in a very sloppy, imprecise way. We confuse something’s being ‘relative’ with being arbitrary or subjective or governed only by fleeting whims” (Who’s Afraid of Relativism?, 179).

Thus Dr. James K. A. Smith closes his coverage of the subject of relativism, when – perhaps – this is where he should have started.

Part of Baker Academics’ “The Church and Post Modern Culture” series (also edited by Dr. Smith), this entry finds its place alongside a growing library of Christian postmodern thought. The collection presents itself as “[writing] for a broad, nonspecialist, audience.” However, reader be warned, this is some heady stuff. Not to be undertaken as casual reading, much of what is presented requires concerted effort to unravel, though it is quite worth the investment.

In the previously discussed Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, Dr. Smith presented some of the most notable quotes from the works of postmodern philosophy and sought to situate them within a Christian framework. In this follow-up, the author’s source material, though focused in on three specific sources, is much broader. Here the philosophies of Wittgenstein, Rorty, and Brandom are put on display and the common, modern, western philosophy of knowledge is put to the test.

Spending much of his time working out the core thought of these three sources, Smith challenges the concept of foundational truth, but not in the way perhaps to which we are accustomed. Rather than a wholesale dismissal of “absolutes,” the author takes aim at those who would seek to find their justification therein. He points out our own dependence (“relative-ness”) on God’s creative act: that we are creatures and that God chose to relateHimself to us through Jesus Christ. Further, He has called us together within the context of the Church.

As such, Smith claims that we can’t rightly know God (nor anything “absolutely” true about creation) outside the influence of the Church. Further, he compares our desire toward so-called “absolute truth” as tantamount to the first sin of Adam. A bit excessive? Perhaps, but it certainly gives clarity to his argument.

Smith ends not with a no-rules, believe-what-you want faith, but with a call to “come and see” evangelism. He implores the church to deliver a tangible experience of an intangible God that makes the ethereal concrete in the lives that it touches. As he rounds out his argument, the author quotes George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine, “The conclusion is paradoxical: Religious communities are likely to be practically relevant in the long run to the degree that they do not first ask what is either practical or relevant …. ”

There is one point on which I must be critica. I would like to give it a pass, but I found the same issue presented in the collection’s previous release Liturgy as a way of Life – that is the potential mis-representation within the title. While Smith’s Postmodernism was quite focused and provided clarity on the term itself, Relativism re-casts the term from its colloquial usage into — perhaps, rightly — its philosophical definition. So, while the author fulfills his duty and addresses the topic as he rightly aims to, the casual reader may be disappointed by what he finds, or may not feel his questions on the topic are answered.

In short, I’m a firm believer in challenging oneself in study, and this work is definitely a challenge. It forces the reader to question his assumptions and his presuppositions, but it does so in an unoffending manner. While it may not yield the immediate actions list that you might walk away with from some other books on your “to read” list, it will certainly spark some welcomed new thinking.