Here are the books that I have recently read.
Chosen by God by RC Sproul
With my Overdrive application on my iPhone, I recently got the chance to cruise through “Chosen By God” by the Reformed Evangelical thinker (and prolific author) RC Sproul. I would recommend this book for anyone seeking an entry level understanding to issues of predestination and free will as presented in the Bible. Sproul does a good job walking through the issues raised by Calvinists. While he addresses the points made by followers of Jacob Arminius, he is so supremely biased both in his reasoning and which verses he chooses to highlight that it is not a fair fight. At least he is clear from the outset about his own beliefs and convictions.
Sproul not only highlights the issues of predeterminism and degrees of volition choice, but he analyzes major church teachers as well including: Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards (the great American theologian).
God’s sovereign choice is a difficult issue for believers to wrestle with no matter where they land on the matter. Sproul handles the difficulty with some important and critical nuances.
Beyond this book, what is interesting to me personally is that science (in some quarters) seems to be confirming what theologians have talked about for ages. Given our nature (DNA) and nurture (how we are raised which we have little to no say in), how much of our lives and choices are predetermined by those ingredients? This continues to be a fascinating discussion that probably will continue on as long as human beings are around.
Lester Lauding Level: 3.5 (Out of 5)
Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People By Nadia Bolz-Weber
My inaugural introduction to the literary work of Nadia Bolz-Weber was a fun read with some good insights but didn’t really feel revelatory to me. Bolz-Weber is an edgy personality as she describes herself. In this book, she tells stories about people she has met as a Lutheran pastor at her church, “House for All Sinners and Saints”.
A former stand-up comic, tattooed and foul mouthed person (unapologetically) Bolz-Weber makes the former Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll seem like a tame choir boy. “Fuck”, “Asshole”, “shit” and other colorful language decorate the pages of this confessional biography of sorts. With Driscoll, the “cussing pastor” seemed like a marketing gimmick. With Bolz-Weber, I sense a little more authenticity as to this is who she truly is.
She has tales of encounters with church-loving agnostics (this was strange to me too), a gun-toting member of the NRA (whom she goes shooting with as a gun control supporting liberal- a kind of sweet story actually), a drag queen, a felonious bishop, and other characters. The writing movingly talks about God’s grace and how no one has it all together although Christians especially are guilty of creating religious hierarchy’s for determining who is more spiritual than who.
Bolz-Weber’s book is yet another in a line of books coming about whose marketing seems to be aimed at people who are disillusioned to some extent with Christianity or perhaps more explicitly conservative Evangelicalism. I consider myself an Evangelical (just by doctrine mostly, not necessarily politics) and I find it extremely helpful to read accounts and books like this one. Good criticism that aims to correct and illuminate blind spots are invaluable and of God.
I came away from this book wanting to be less inclined to judge anyone else’s Christian spirituality in relationship to my own. We are all receivers of grace and Bolz-Weber seems to really grasp that truth.
Lester Lauding Level: 3.5 (out of 5)
“My spirituality is most active, not in meditation, but in the moments when: I realize God may have gotten something beautiful done through me despite the fact that I am an asshole, and when I am confronted by the mercy of the gospel so much that I cannot hate my enemies, and when I am unable to judge the sin of someone else (which, let’s be honest, I love to do) because my own crap is too much in the way, and when I have to bear witness to another human being’s suffering despite my desire to be left alone, and when I am forgiven by someone even though I don’t deserve it and my forgiver does this because he, too, is trapped by the gospel, and when traumatic things happen in the world and I have nowhere to place them or make sense of them but what I do have is a group of people who gather with me every week, people who will mourn and pray with me over the devastation of something like a school shooting, and when I end up changed by loving someone I’d never choose out of a catalog but whom God sends my way to teach me about God’s love.”
“And this is it. This is the life we get here on earth. We get to give away what we receive. We get to believe in each other. We get to forgive and be forgiven. We get to love imperfectly. And we never know what effect it will have for years to come. And all of it…all of it is completely worth it.”
“Sometimes the fact that there is nothing about you that makes you the right person to do something is exactly what God is looking for.”
“The adjective so often coupled with mercy is the word tender, but God’s mercy is not tender; this mercy is a blunt instrument. Mercy doesn’t wrap a warm, limp blanket around offenders. God’s mercy is the kind that kills the thing that wronged it and resurrects something new in its place. In our guilt and remorse, we may wish for nothing but the ability to rewrite our own past, but what’s done cannot, will not, be undone. But I am here to say that in the mercy of God it can be redeemed. I cling to the truth of God’s ability to redeem us more than perhaps any other. I have to. I need to. I want to. For when we say “Lord have mercy,” what else could we possibly mean than this truth?”
“There are many reasons to steer clear of Christianity. No question. I fully understand why people make that choice. Christianity has survived some unspeakable abominations: the Crusades, clergy sex-scandals, papal corruption, televangelist scams, and clown ministry. But it will survive us, too. It will survive our mistakes and pride and exclusion of others. I believe that the power of Christianity — the thing that made the very first disciples drop their nets and walk away from everything they knew, the thing that caused Mary Magdalene to return to the tomb and then announce the resurrection of Christ, the thing that the early Christians martyred themselves for, and the thing that keeps me in the Jesus business (or, what my Episcopal priest friend Paul calls “working for the company”) — is something that cannot be killed. The power of unbounded mercy, of what we call The Gospel, cannot be destroyed by corruption and toothy TV preachers. Because in the end, there is still Jesus.”
“God did not enter the world of our nostalgic, silent-night, snow-blanketed, peace-on-earth, suspended reality of Christmas. God slipped into the vulnerability of skin and entered our violent and disturbing world.”
“I’ve never fully understood how Christianity became quite so tame and respectable, given its origins among drunkards, prostitutes, and tax collectors….Jesus could have hung out in the high-end religious scene of his day, but instead he scoffed at all that, choosing instead to laugh at the powerful, befriend whores, kiss sinners, and eat with all the wrong people. He spent his time with people for whom life was not easy. And there, amid those who were suffering, he was the embodiment of perfect love.”
Mister Miracle by Tom King and Illustrated by Mitch Gerads
My occasional foray into graphic novels was epic as I read through “Mister Miracle” written by former CIA counterterrorism official, Tom King, and illustrated by Mitch Gerads. The artistic look of the book is amazing and Gerads style is unique and perfect for bringing this not-to-well known character to life in the DC Comic Universe or multiverse or whatever the hell it is where these characters roam.
I was not familiar with Mister Miracle (whose character name is Scott Free). He was a creation of comics legend Jack Kirby back in the 1970s. The account goes that Kirby brought over Mister Miracle and other New Gods characters to DC as part of the Fourth World Tetralogy. Never read those comics so not sure what any of that means but the helpful thing with this graphic novel is King catches everyone up to Mister Miracle’s back story at the very beginning. The short story is: he is a god from the planet Apokolips which is perpetually at war with New Genesis.
After the introduction, we see Mister Miracle lying on the floor with his wrists slit and blood flowing out. Scott Free is an escape artist and here he is trying to escape from life while living on planet Earth. The pressure of who he is and what is going on with his home worlds plus family life as a colossal burden to bear.
The action goes back and forth between the civil war on the worlds of Apokolips and New Genesis and Earth where Mister Miracle lives with his wife Big Barda and their child. King is juxtaposing intergalactic war with family life throughout and slowly builds his story to surprising conclusions that include religious imagery and metaphors. The famous scene now of the bad god (and villain) Darkseid chomping on carrots is an instant classic.
This is a work that shows that comic books are not just for a younger audience but can be filled with philosophies and ideas for all readers to consider. There is nothing pandering about what King is doing in this book. A really excellent and absorbing read.
Lester Lauding Level: 4.5 (out of 5)
Out of Sorts: Making Peace With an Evolving Faith by Sarah Bessey
I’ll be the first to admit that in my own little theology world, I have read a lot of old guys or dead old guys. Recently, I have been making a more concerted effort to expand into reading other voices and not only that, but voices that I may disagree with on notable theological issues. So, I have read two books by the late Rachel Held Evans and I have read a book by Nadia Bolz-Weber and now am venturing into the story of Canadian Sarah Bessey.
Personally, I didn’t connect with Bessey’s work as much as Evans’ and there definitely seem to be specific similarities in their writing style and viewpoints. They both come from the blogging world. Bessey was an award-winning blogger.
With “Out of Sorts”, Bessey dives into what is being called narrative theology where she talks a good deal about her life and experiences and weaves that in with thoughts about the Bible, church and theology in general. Narrative theology is the way of communicating theology (perspectives on God) through life story. Like the previous authors, I have disagreements on some theological issues but am finding all of this an interesting exploration.
Bessey writes fondly of her time growing up as a zealous Evangelical Christian in the charismatic movement. She had a crisis of faith and left the church for awhile (I believe it was something like 6 years) and then was reading her Bible on the kitchen table one morning when she exclaims out loud to her husband, Brian, that “I want to follow that guy” after reading a passage about Jesus in the gospels.
She discusses her theology and how those ideas have evolved over time. At points, she sounds like Brian McClaren in “A Generous Orthodoxy” where she adopts a bunch of different doctrinal statements from all over Christendom. And that is fine. Not necessarily a criticism to do that (to an extent) but I’m just making the point that it did not seem like a fresh perspective to me.
Reading a few of these books now has allowed me to see a lot of the similarities and that they are a part of their own tribe. Again, nothing wrong with that per se but if someone has read Evans’ work, this will feel like familiar ground.
Lester Lauding Level: 3 (out of 5)
“Anyone who gets to the end of their life with the exact same beliefs and opinions as they had at the beginning is doing it wrong.”
“Set out, pilgrim. Set out into the freedom and the wandering. Find your people. God is much bigger, wilder, more generous, and more wonderful than you imagined.”
“Theologian and scholar Walter Brueggemann writes beautifully in ‘The Prophetic Imagination’ that real hope comes only after despair. Only if we have tasted despair, only if we have known the deep sadness of unfulfilled dreams and promises, only if we can dare to look reality in the face and name it for what it is, can we dare to begin to imagine a better way. Hope is subversive precisely because it dares to admit that all is not as it should be.
And so we are holding out for, working for, creating, prophesying, and living into something better—for the kingdom to come, for oaks of righteousness to tower, for leaves to blossom for the healing of the nations, for swords to be beaten into plowshares, for joy to come in the morning, and for redemption and justice.”
“Blessed are the wonderers with the courage to live into the questions. Seems to me that sooner or later, whether we like the outcome or not, theirs is the answer.”
“In the Kingdom of God, we join with God in co-creation, in the work of the new earth. We love and we follow Jesus. We shape our lives into His life, to live here on earth as He would live among us. We weren’t called to follow political parties or ideology, nationalism, consumerism, or power. Instead, we were called to apprentice ourselves to Jesus’ way of life. We were called to be part of establishing the Kingdom of God here and now in our walking-around lives. Partnering with God to see the Kingdom come.”
“Jesus remains. He is worth it all. He is under the steeples and in the wilderness. He is in the megachurch and in the spiritual conversation at the bar. He inhabits our certainty and also our doubt. He is every good thing that ever was or will be, and He is still in the business of saving our lives. Really, that’s the thing. It is our hope and salvation, and everything else is just details.”
“Justice is often born in the quiet and ordinary moments long before it’s seen by anyone else. Sometimes it’s as simple and as difficult as listening, as learning, as laying down our excuses or justifications or disguises, as forgiveness, as choosing the hard daily work of restoration, as staying resolutely alive when everyone else is numbing themselves against it.”
“And here, at the last, as we sit here among the questions still unanswered and the path you must walk ahead, I pray for your journey as it unfolds into the unknown.
I know you feel a bit out of sorts. We all do sometimes. It’s okay. Don’t be afraid.
You are so very loved. I pray you would remember it, know it, live it, breathe it, rest in it: beloved. In the mighty and powerful name of Jesus, Amen.”
THIS: Becoming Free by Michael Gungor
Transitioning has been a huge part of Michael Gungor’s life of recent. As one half of the former Grammy-Nominated Christian worship group, Gungor, he has announced that Gungor (as the band) will be no more. Previously, he declared that he was no longer a Christian shortly after giving up on being a pastor of a Denver area megachurch. Those stories are a part of his strange new book “THIS: Becoming Free” while being mixed in with his other thoughts about life, eastern religion, off-the-wall philosophy and weird parables.
No one can say that they have read anything quite like “THIS”. It is a smorgasboard of a trip inside Gungor’s brain that will bring maybe a little clarity as to where he personally is at in the present space but will likely induce far more questions. Comedian Pete Holmes has likened sections of Gungor’s work to an LSD trip. I have never taken LSD so I will take his word for it. As wild as “THIS” is as a book, I must say it is a compelling read. Part of the fascination as one turns the pages is where exactly Gungor will go next.
The book’s physical presentation looks like a brown paper bag and in the bottom right hand corner is a simple, crude illustration of a man walking a dog in the rain. Don’t worry. This serves as a continuing parable in the book.
Having shed orthodox Christianity, Gungor is very much into non-dualism. A little while ago, I got into a mini debate with him on this topic on Twitter. If we believe in God and define “God” as a supreme being that had no beginning, by definition, God is separate from us in His metaphysical being. A duality in other words. God had no beginning. We (and creation) have all had a beginning. There is a stark difference there at a basic reality.
A takeaway I had from reading the book is a more common (or pop) understanding of eastern religions. I’m obviously not a Buddhist but I used to consider Buddhism an absurdity based on the central tenant of Nirvana- a state of desiring nothing. My argument would be that to be human and to exist is TO desire something: food, sex, sleep, etc. Gungor has a good way of fleshing this out often differentiating between “desiring nothing” and attachments to things.
Trippy, heady and strange in the best possible way, if someone is a fan of Gungor or even a former fan, I would recommend this book. Even if you come away disagreeing (and I have my share of disagreements), it is an satisying journey into an artistically inclined person’s mind.
Lester Lauding Level: 4 (out of 5)