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Book Review:: You’re Already Amazing by Holley Gerth

15 Mar

Since Holley Gerth writes for DaySpring cards (and co-founded (in)courage) it seems cliché to say that her book, You’re Already Amazing, is like receiving an unexpected greeting card saturated with wisdom and thoughtfulness only a dear friend could write. But that’s exactly what reading You’re Already Amazing is like!  Gerth engaged me with her girlfriend language, stunning insights into the heart of God, and helpful exercises that encouraged me to learn more about who I am and what I mean to my Creator.

What I appreciated most about You’re Already Amazing were the exercises that Gerth, also a trained counselor, included at the end of each chapter.  Instead of just telling me how great I am because I was created by God and proving her point with Scripture, Gerth’s tools helped me discover my strengths (and weaknesses) and how I can best use them for the glory of God!  Not only am I already amazing, I am also already uniquely gifted!  It’s nice to get a pep talk, but even better to take that encouraging energy to the next level—to actually live it out.

In some ways this book is similar to Captivating by John and Stasi Eldredge, but Holley Gerth’s work is more reader-friendly, and her charm is enticing, page-turning, and life-changing.  This is a book for the weak and the strong, the lost and the found, the hopeless and the hopeful.  Really, You’re Already Amazing is a book for every woman in every walk, on every journey to discover who she is, what she was created to be, and how she is desperately loved by her Father.  Stop striving to be “enough” and discover how amazing you really are to the One who loves you more than you can fathom.

*Thanks to Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, for providing me a review copy of this book.*

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FIRST Wild Card Tour + Review: Beauty Will Save the World by Brian Zahnd

30 Jan

Amy’s Take: Beauty Will Save the World is about how the intrinsic message of the Gospel is beautiful.  Author Brian Zahnd says that the Jews in Jesus’ time expected a benevolent ruler who would overthrow Roman oppression, but instead they got a God-man who died on a tree (and rose again).  To the Jewish people, this seemed to be the opposite of victory, but the very definition of love—that God Himself would die a sinner’s death to redeem what was lost, to restore what is broken, to restore beauty.  It is this beauty that will save the world.

This book tickled the part of my brain that longs for intelligent, theological discourse.  However, at time Zahnd is repetitive using the same words and phrases to a fault. While I understand that he is urging readers to see the cross (which he refers to as the cruciform, which is the shape of the cross), I feel that he will lose readers in his cumbersome terminology.  This isn’t a book that can be simply read.  Sentences need to be digested, re-read, and understood because each line builds up Zahnd’s argument.

Admittedly, I have yet to finish the Beauty Will Save the World (not the easy nighttime read I thought it would be), but so far I have found the book to be biblically sound.  Reading this book is like digging for diamonds—it takes work, but in the end, you will find something precious and beautiful.

Read on, and find out if this book is for you!

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:
and the book:
Casa Creacion (January 3, 2012)

***Special thanks to Jon Wooten of Charisma House for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

I’m a full-time pastor, an erstwhile author, and a would-be mountaineer. I am the lead pastor of Word of Life Church in Saint Joseph, Missouri. I am the author of several books, most recently *Unconditional* and *What To Do On The Worst Day Of Your Life*

I became a Christian as a teenager through a dramatic encounter with Jesus during the height of the Jesus movement. Almost immediately I was holding Bible studies in High School, leading a coffeehouse ministry and preaching in whatever church was crazy enough to let a long-haired Jesus freak into the pulpit. Seven years after my life-changing encounter with Jesus I started Word of Life Church in a broken down Methodist church building. For the first seven years we struggled and remained small, but since that time God has allowed me to be a pastor to thousands. It never ceases to amaze me.

My great passion is for the King and His Kingdom. I’ve been led on my never-ending adventure of exploring the Kingdom of the Heavens by these five signpost words: Cross, Mystery, Eclectic, Community, Revolution. I could talk for hours on these five words that revolve around Jesus, but this is supposed to be a short bio.

My wife Peri and I have done some pretty improbable things by daring to believe God. It has made our life an adventure—not always easy, but always an adventure…and in the end, always good.

We have three sons: Caleb, Aaron and Philip, and two daughter-in-laws, Ashlie and Sarah. They’re awesome.

Visit the author’s website.

SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:

In today’s world we have technology, convenience, security, and a measure of prosperity, but where is the beauty?

For thousands of years, artists, sages, philosophers, and theologians have connected the beautiful and the sacred and identified art with our longing for God. Now we live in a day when convenience and practicality have largely displaced beauty as a value. The church is no exception—even salvation is commonly viewed in a scientific and mechanistic manner and presented as a plan, system, or formula.

In Beauty Will Save the World, Brian Zahnd presents the argument that this loss of beauty as a principal value has been disastrous for Western culture—and especially for the church. The full message of the beauty of the gospel has been replaced by our desires to satisfy our material needs, to empirically prove our faith, and to establish political power in our world—the exact same things that Christ was tempted with—and rejected—in the wilderness.

Zahnd shows that by following the teachings of the Beatitudes, the church can become a viable alternative to current-day political, commercial, and religious power and can actually achieve what these powers promise to provide but fail to deliver. Using stories from the lives of St. Francis of Assisi and from his own life, he teaches us to stay on the journey to discover the kingdom of God in a fuller, richer—more beautiful—way.

Product Details:

  • List Price: $15.99
  • Paperback: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Casa Creacion (January 3, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1616385855
  • ISBN-13: 978-1616385859

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Chapter 1: Form and Beauty: This is a book about beauty and Christianity—or perhaps about the beauty of Christianity. We are all attracted to beauty. We desire it, we admire it, we recognize it when we see it. We have an innate instinct for beauty, even if the definition of what beauty actually is can be a bit unwieldy. In an academic sense, beauty is generally

understood as a combination of color, shape, and form that we find aesthetically pleasing. That is a rather bland description of beauty, but even if the definition is inadequate, we do understand that beauty has a form. This is important. Whether it’s a painting or a poem or a sculpture or a song, beauty has a form. Form is central to beauty. Distortion of a beautiful form takes away from its beauty. Obviously it’s even possible for a beautiful thing to become so distorted and deformed that it loses most or all of its beauty. When this happens, it’s a kind of vandalism.

Think of a beautiful stained-glass window, an artistic combination of color, shape, and form. Imagine a stained-glass masterpiece in a great cathedral, perhaps depicting a scene

from the life of Jesus. Now try to imagine a vandal lobbing bricks through that window. The beautiful combination of color and form has been broken, and beauty has been lost. It is a tragedy, and we are saddened. What we hope for now is some kind of restoration—we hope that beauty can be recovered. We hope for this because one way of viewing life is as an ongoing struggle to create, preserve, and recover what is beautiful. This is why art is not merely a leisure pursuit but serious business, because, quite simply, life should be made as beautiful as possible.

But this is not a book about art appreciation. This is a book about Christianity and about making it beautiful. Christianity in its proper form is a transcendent beauty. The story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection is not only the greatest story ever told, but it’s also the most beautiful story ever told. Christianity as the ongoing expression of the Jesus story lived out in the lives of individuals and in the heart of society is a beauty that can

redeem the world. That is an almost outlandish statement, but I believe it!

Yet I also recognize that Christianity can be distorted. It can be twisted out of shape. It can lose its beautiful form. When this happens, Christianity is not only less than beautiful; it can at times be blatantly ugly. It has happened before. What I fear is that we are in danger of losing our perspective of what is most beautiful about Christianity and accidentally vandalizing our faith with the best of intentions. I fear the vandalism has already begun. This book is about what can be done and how Christianity can recover its form and beauty through a new kind of reformation.

Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda—The church reformed and always reforming.This Latin phrase was one of the mottoes of the Protestant Reformation—a reminder and an acknowledgment that for the church to remain true to its mission and witness and to retain its beauty, the church must constantly be reforming itself. Of course, semper reformanda doesn’t mean the church should mindlessly engage in change for the sake of faddish novelty or trendy innovation. That’s not what I’m talking about. Rather semper reformanda comes from the realization that there are forces—political, social, theological, spiritual, and so forth—that over time tend to twist the church and the gospel out of shape. As a result the church must continually seek to recover the true form and original beauty found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This kind of reformation is an ongoing process.

There is indeed a sense in which the need for some measure of reformation is always present, but there are also times when the need for reformation (think re-formation) is more critical than others. There are times when the distortion of the church is severe enough that the integrity of our message is compromised. I’m convinced the evangelical church in the Western world is facing just such a crisis. Putting it as plainly as I can, evangelical Christianity needs to recover the form and beauty that are intrinsic to Christianity. We need a reformation because we are being twisted out of shape. Let me try to explain how this has happened.

The stories of evangelicalism and America are deeply intertwined in much the same way that the stories of Catholicism and the Roman Empire are intertwined. Evangelical Christianity came of age during America’s rise to superpower status on the world stage. America, untethered from European Christendom and their vassal state churches, provided an environment conducive for evangelical Christianity, and evangelical Christianity has flourished in the American environment. (By evangelical I mean the expression of Protestant Christianity characterized by a dual emphasis on the authority of Scripture and a personal conversion experience—this is evangelicalism at its best.) So far

so good. But there is always a particular temptation faced by the church when it is hosted by a superpower. The temptation is to accommodate itself to its host and to adopt (or even christen) the cultural assumptions of the superpower.

This is nothing new. The long history of the church bears witness to the reality and seductive power of this temptation. The historic problem the Greek Orthodox Church struggled with in the East sixteen hundred years ago was the temptation to be too conformed to the Byzantine Empire. At the same time, the historic problem the Roman Catholic Church struggled with in the West was the temptation to be too conformed

to the Roman Empire. And I dare to suggest (or even insist!) that the problem that is distorting American evangelicalism is that it has become far too accommodating to Americanism and the culture of a superpower. This is fairly obvious. You don’t have to be a sociologist to recognize that the American obsession with pragmatism, individualism, consumerism, materialism, and militarism that so characterizes contemporary America has come to shape (and thereby distort) the dominant form of evangelical Christianity found in North America. It becomes American culture with a Jesus fish bumper sticker. If we are unwilling to engage in critical thought, we will simply assume that this is Christianity, when in reality it is a kind of Christianity blended with many other things.

To be born in America is to be handed a certain script. We are largely unconscious of the script, but we are “scripted” by it nevertheless. The American script is part of our nurture

and education, and most of it happens without our knowing it. The dominant American script is that which idolizes success, achievement, acquisition, technology, and militarism. It is the script of a superpower. But this dominant script does not fit neatly with the alternative script we find in the gospel of Jesus Christ. So here is our challenge: when those who confess Christ find themselves living in the midst of an economic and military superpower, they are faced with the choice to either be an accommodating chaplain or a prophetic challenge. Over the last generation or so, evangelicalism has been

more adept at endorsing the dominant script than challenging it. And in conforming too closely to the dominant script of Americanism, the Christianity of the American church has become disfigured and distorted and is in desperate need of recovering its true form and original beauty through a process of re-formation. We need to bear the form and beauty of the Jesus way and not merely provide a Christianized version of our cultural assumptions.

In order to recover the true form and original beauty that is integral to Christianity, we need an ideal form, a true standard, an accurate template, a faithful model to which we can look, to which we must conform. For historic Christianity this has always been Jesus Christ upon the cross, which is a holy irony, since crucifixion was designed to be ghastly and hideous. But this is the mystery of the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which attains in retrospect an eternal glory and beauty through the resurrection, is the axis of Christianity around which everything else revolves. Thus the cruciform (the shape of a cross) is the eternal form that endows Christianity with its mysterious beauty. Simply put, the cross is the form that makes Christianity beautiful! The cross is the beauty of Christianity because it is at the cross that we encounter co-suffering love and costly forgiveness in its most beautiful form.

But the question is, can we see the beauty of the cruciform? In a culture that idolizes success, can we see beauty in the cross? In a culture that equates beauty with a “pretty

face,” can we see past the horror of a grisly execution and discern the sacred beauty beneath the surface? This is what artistic representations of the cruciform are capable of capturing and why their work is invaluable. The artist doesn’t give us a journalistic photograph of an event, but an artistic interpretation of an event. The great masters of sacred art were both artists and theologians; through their work they have given us an artistic interpretation that reveals the inherent, but hidden, beauty of the cross. Consider the cruciform and try to apprehend its beauty. The Christ upon the cross, arms outstretched in the gesture of proffered embrace, refusing to call upon avenging angels but instead loving his enemies and praying for their forgiveness—this is the form and beauty of Christianity. The cruciform is the posture of love and forgiveness where retaliation is abandoned and outcomes are entrusted to the hands of God. The cross is laden with mystery. At first glance it looks like anything but success. It looks like failure. It looks like defeat. It looks like death. It is death. But it is also the power and wisdom of

God. This is mysterious. It is also beautiful. This is the mysterious beauty that saves the world.

The cruciform is the aesthetic of our gospel. It is the form that gives Christianity its unique beauty. It is what distinguishes Christianity from the dominant script of a superpower. But the beauty of the cruciform is a beauty communicated in a mystery. To those who value only conventional power and crass pragmatism—which is always the tendency of a superpower—the cruciform looks like folly, weakness, defeat, and death. It is not conventional beauty. But to those who have eyes to see, the cruciform shows forth a transcendent beauty—the beauty of love and forgiveness. It is the beauty of Christ’s

love and forgiveness as most clearly seen in the cruciform that is able to save us from our vicious pride and avaricious greed.

This is relevant to our situation because pride and greed are often pawned off as virtues in the culture of a superpower. Pride and greed are the engines of expansion, and as such they tend to be reworked as attributes. It was true in first-century Rome, and it’s true in twenty-first-century America. We’re told to “take pride in ourselves” and reminded that “we’re number one.” We sing about how proud we are to be Americans (even in church!). Plus there’s always someone new buying into Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy of self-interest and explaining to us with great passion how “greed is good.” But our Scriptures give a minority report; they tell us that pride and greed are the pliers that have distorted our humanity into a sinful ugliness. We must see the beauty of Christ in the cruciform and understand that it is only the beauty of self-sacrificing love that can

save us from pride and greed. This is the beauty Dostoevsky correctly and prophetically spoke of when he said, “Beauty will save the world.”

The church always faces the temptation to turn its gaze from the beauty of the cruciform and look instead to “the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” The beauty of the cruciform is a subtle and hidden beauty, like the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa. The splendor of Babylon is brash, like the garish lights of Las Vegas. When we lose sight of the subtle beauty of the cruciform we become seduced by the power, prestige, and pragmatism of politics. To borrow Tolkien’s theme, we become seduced by the ring of power. The ring of power is the enemy of beauty. It was the ring of power—“my precious”—that transformed the humanlike Sméagol into the reptilian Gollum. In like manner, the church begins to devolve from beauty into a distorted form less beautiful the moment it reaches for the ring of power.

But we reach for the ring of power nevertheless. We find it almost irresistible. Of course we supply ourselves with copious reasons as to why our fascination with conventional power is a good thing: “We want to have power to do good.” “We want to make a difference in the world.” “We have to take a stand against evil.” But without realizing it, we are being subtly seduced into thinking there is a better way to go about achieving righteousness and justice (think beauty) than by taking up the cross and following Jesus. We begin to think that if we can just get Caesar on our side, if we can just get the emperor to hold a National Prayer Breakfast, we can then baptize the ways and means of the empire and at last accomplish “great things for God.” And here’s the thing: Caesar is

more than willing to employ the church as a chaplain, as long as the church will endorse (with a bit of religious flourish) the ways and means of the empire. Of course the ways and means of the empire are the ways and means of political and military domination. There’s no beauty in that. Politics is never pretty. Everyone knows that. Thus the church sacrifices the beauty of Christianity when it chooses the political form over the cruciform.

Reaching for the ring of power distorts our beauty.

But why would we do it? Why would we sacrifice the enchanting beauty of Christianity for the ugly machine of politics? Because political power is so—and there’s no other word for it—pragmatic. We’re convinced “it works.” What could be more simple? Here’s the formula. Just put good people in positions of power and good things will happen. (Such thinking is very close to the wilderness temptation Jesus faced; more on that later.) We are easily seduced by the clear logic of political pragmatism. But we need to remember that God does not save the world through the clear logic of political pragmatism (though Jesus was tempted by the devil, and even by his own disciples, to attempt it). Instead, God saves the world through the ironic and mysterious beauty of the cruciform. To achieve good through attaining political and military dominance has

always—always!—been the way of the fallen world. We seem to lack the imagination to envisage any other way. But it’s not the Jesus way. It’s not the beautiful way. It’s not the way of the cruciform.

Jesus does not save the world by adopting the ways and means of political pragmatism and becoming the best Caesar the world has ever seen. Instead Jesus saves the world by suffering the worst crime humanity is capable of—the crime of deicide (the murder of God). On the cross Jesus absorbed our hate and hostility, our vengeance and violence into His own body and recycled it into love and forgiveness. By his wounds we are healed. By this beauty we are saved.

The third-century theologian Origen observed that “the marvel of Christ is that, in a world where power, riches, and violence seduce hearts and compel assent, he persuades and prevails not as a tyrant, an armed assailant, or a man of wealth, but simply as a teacher of God and his love.”1 Commenting on this, David Bentley Hart says, “Christ is a persuasion, a form evoking desire. . . . Such an account [of Christ] must inevitably make an appeal to beauty.”2 I absolutely agree! Christ persuades, not by the force of Caesar, but by the beauty of love.

I assume that every Christian would agree with the idea that what Jesus did in his death was beautiful and that somehow this beautiful act is central to our salvation. But the challenge is to translate the beauty of the cruciform into contemporary Christianity—especially a contemporary Christianity obsessed with power and politics. The beauty of the cruciform by which Jesus saves the world through an act of co-suffering love and

costly forgiveness is the same beauty that must characterize the church if we are to show forth the glory of the Lord in our world. But it’s the beauty of cruciform love that is most

marred when we allow the Christian faith to be politicized.

A politicized faith loses its beauty very quickly. I know, because I was once an enthusiastic participant in the process of faith-based politicization. I was willing to subtly, and at times not so subtly, align my church with partisan political agendas. Senators and congressman would visit my church to give their testimonies (always around election time). We handed out “voter guides” so those not paying close enough attention would know how to vote. We found ways to make the elephants and donkeys of the American political process somehow analogous to the sheep and goats in Jesus’s parables. But for me that came to an abrupt end in a fairly dramatic fashion.

In September of 2004 in the heat of a volatile presidential campaign I was asked to give the invocation at a political rally where one of the vice presidential candidates was

appearing. I agreed to do so. I remember well the acrimony outside the convention center where protestors and supporters were busy hurling ugly epithets at one another. Inside the convention center the crowd was being whipped into a political frenzy that amounted to “hurray for our side!” As I sat on the platform with the political acolytes, and me as their rent-a-chaplain, I began to squirm. I knew I was being used. I was a pawn in a political game. I felt like a tool. (And a fool!) When it came time for me to pray (for which the unstated purpose was to let it be known that God was squarely on our side), I stepped to the podium and first prayed silently, “God, what am I doing here? I’ve made a mistake. I’m sorry.” I then offered a largely innocuous prayer and left as soon as I could, promising myself and God that I would never do anything like that again. But in leaving the convention center I again had to run the gauntlet of supporters and protesters yelling at one another with the police in between the two groups to prevent them from being at one another’s throats. It wasn’t pretty. And no prayer could make it pretty. It was petty, partisan, and petulant. I could not imagine Jesus or the apostles sullying their gospel to participate in it.

That moment was a turning point for me. I was no longer willing to see the church as a sidekick to Caesar, fully baptized (immersed, not sprinkled) into the acrimonious world

of partisan politics. It’s not that I’m afraid of controversy or persecution—I am perfectly willing to suffer persecution and ridicule for the sake of Christ (this is part of the cruciform). But I am unwilling to throw myself into the political fray for the sake of partisanship. I’m unwilling to do so because I simply no longer believe that political parties have much to do with God’s redemptive work in the world. Jesus is building his

church, not a political party. And I’m absolutely certain that political partisanship costs us our prophetic voice. We end up a tool to one side, an enemy to the other, and prophetic to neither. The bottom line is there is simply no way to make politics beautiful. But the way of the cruciform is beautiful. And I have made my choice. I choose the beautiful over the pragmatic. I realize that many people will not understand this, but I fully believe this is precisely the choice Jesus made. In choosing the cruciform over the political, Jesus was choosing the beautiful over the pragmatic.

If we are going to recover the form and beauty of Christianity, we are going to have to face squarely the issue of the politicization of the faith, because things are getting ugly. In the current climate of polarized partisanship where everything is now politicized, there is an appalling amount of anger, vitriol, and a general lack of civility. Sadly, millions of confessed followers of Jesus are being swept up in the madness as they give vent to their anger, fully convinced that God is on their side. Their justification is “we’ve got to take America back for God.” Presumably this is to be done by the dubious means of acrimonious partisan politics. But we need to think less politically and more biblically.

Does the church have a mandate to change the world through political means? We have assumed so, but it is a questionable assumption at best. Baptist theologian Russell Moore

has observed that, “Too often, and for too long, American ‘Christianity’ has been a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it.”3 But is our mission a kind of political agenda or is it something else? Isn’t our first task to actually be God’s alternative society? Pause and think about that. I’m afraid we’ve made a grave mistake concerning our mission. We’re not so much tasked with running the world as with being a faithful expression of the kingdom of God through following Jesus and living the beautiful life that Jesus sets forth in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus described his disciples as sheep among wolves. The mistake of confusing our mission of being faithful as God’s alternative society with trying to rule the world through the crude means of political power is nothing new—it’s the mistake the church has been making for seventeen centuries. Prior to the Roman emperor Constantine, the early church was content to simply be the church—to be a city set upon a hill living the alternative

lifestyle that is the Jesus way. But after the emperor Constantine and the adoption of Christianity as the imperial religion, the church embarked upon a project of running the

world in cahoots with Caesar. This project has not turned out well. And it has been particularly damaging to the church. In fact, it has led to the ugliest episodes in church history. The church’s collusion with political agendas led us into the shameful venture of the Crusades and the arrogant doctrine of Manifest Destiny. These things are truly ugly.

The problem with our “change the world” rhetoric is that it is too often a thinly veiled grasp for power and a quest for dominance—things that are antithetical to the way Jesus calls his disciples to live. A politicized faith feeds on a narrative of perceived injury and lost entitlement leading us to blame, vilify, and seek to in some way retaliate against those we imagine responsible for the loss in late modernity of a mythical past. It’s what Friedrich Nietzsche as a critic of Christianity identified as ressentiment, and it drives much of the Christian quest for political power. In the Jesus way the end—no matter how

noble—never justifies the means. It’s inevitable that a movement fueled by resentment will soon depart from the Jesus way, and it is bound to become ugly. Jesus specifically told us that we are not to emulate the ugly ways of Caesar in grasping for power and dominance. Instead we are to choose the counterintuitive way of humility, service, and sacrificial love. These things are inherently beautiful. But we have a hard time learning this lesson.

When the disciples James and John (whom for obvious reasons Jesus called “the sons of thunder”) expressed a desire to reign with Christ in their imagined version of Jesus as Caesar, Jesus made it clear that they didn’t know what they were talking about and that the way of political dominance would not be the way of his kingdom. Jesus curtly told his disciples: “It shall not be so among you.”† Jesus was doing something new and truly beautiful; he was not imitating the way and means of Caesar. The brutal Roman Empire had plenty of splendor as veneer, but it lacked any true depth of beauty. Jesus deliberately

chose the beauty of co-suffering love over the brutal pragmatism of political power. When Pilate encountered Christ, he could not understand this—but we must. We must

never forget that Jesus ushered in his kingdom by refusing to oppose Caesar on Caesar’s terms. Jesus didn’t fight political power with political power. Thus Jesus submitted to the

injustice of a state-sponsored execution by telling Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting.” Think about that. It is part of the mystery and beauty of Christianity that the kingdom of God comes, not by the sword of political power, but by the cross of self-sacrificing love. Jesus didn’t smash his foes with the sword of “righteous” political power; instead he absorbed the blow of injustice and committed his fate to the hands of God. In this we find an undeniable truth: we cannot fight for the kingdom of Christ in the same manner that

the nations of the world fight, for the moment we do, we are no longer the kingdom of Christ but the kingdom of the world! A politicized mind can only imagine power as political domination, but a Spirit-renewed mind imagines the more excellent way of love—which is the more beautiful way of the cruciform.

Admittedly we live in a world where much is wrong. But what is most wrong with the world is not our politics or Congress or who lives in the White House. This is either the

naïve gullibility or the manipulative rhetoric of partisanship. What is most wrong with the world is the ugly distortion of humanity brought about through the dehumanizing forces of lust, greed, and pride. As followers of Jesus we are not called to campaign for a political solution—for ultimately there is none—but to demonstrate an authentic Christian alternative. We are advocates of another way. Certainly we can participate in the political process, but we must do so primarily as ambassadors of another kingdom exhibiting and teaching the beautiful virtues of that kingdom. This is how we are salt and light. This is what makes us a shining city set upon a hill. We are to model what it means to be Christlike in a Caesar-like world. But to be Christlike in a Caesar-like world requires us to embrace the cruciform.

Of course the cruciform is offensive to the unimaginative mind of pragmatism. Pragmatism sees the cruciform as a passive surrender (though it is anything but that!). Pragmatism believes the only way to change the world is to beat down the bad guys—either with ballots or bullets. But without even raising the thorny issue of who are the bad guys in the ever-escalating world of revenge, the philosophy of “beat down the bad guys” displays an appalling lack of imagination. Pragmatism requires little imagination; it only needs the will to power. Or pragmatism will trot out the oft-quoted axiom from Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” That is true enough, provided we don’t misapply what it means to “do nothing.” I was once given Burke’s maxim as a counterargument after preaching on the Sermon on the Mount. As if living the Sermon on the Mount is “doing nothing.” Or worse yet, as if a Christian can call upon Edmund Burke to refute Jesus Christ!

But here is the real problem I have with the trajectory of the American evangelical church in the early twenty-first century. If, instead of imitating Christ with his cross, we want to

imitate Caesar with his sword, we inevitably choose the ugly over the beautiful. This approach always leads the church away from living as a witness to the gospel. Being a faithful witness to the gospel should be a hallmark of evangelical Christianity.

But something has gone very wrong. Think about it—that the primary public witness of the American evangelical church for the past thirty years has been political is an absolute tragedy! Evangelicals are no longer known within the wider culture for their devotion to Scripture and their belief in a personal conversion experience. Now evangelicals are known primarily for their politics. This has been anything but helpful. The amount

of hope many evangelical Christians place in politics is nothing short of astonishing! If nothing else, it is naïve—but worse, it is a betrayal. It is a betrayal of the beautiful way of Christ. For in a politicized faith we embrace the ugly pragmatism of political domination over the beauty of the cruciform.

Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has correctly observed: “The church doesn’t have a social strategy; the church is a social strategy.”4 Instead of trying to force change upon the wider society through means of legislation, we are to exemplify the beautiful alternative of the kingdom of God by actually living it! We make a terrible mistake when we tell the wider society something like this: “We have the truth, so let us run society by setting the rules.” That is a kind of tyranny, no matter how well intended. Instead we should simply be the alternative we seek to produce. We should be a righteous and just society. We should bethe beautiful expression of the kingdom of God attracting people by the unique aesthetic of our gospel. Our form is the cruciform, and our beauty is the mysterious aesthetic of the crucified Savior.

Admittedly, this is a complicated issue that doesn’t yield itself to simplistic solutions. I understand this. Christians have a complicated relationship with the state because we are

a people who carry dual citizenship. We are citizens of both the kingdom of Christ and the particular geopolitical nation we happen to live in. But this much is certain: our first allegiance must be to the kingdom of Christ. Furthermore, we must never make the mistake of thinking God has some kind of commitment to the well-being of our particular nation over the well-being of other nations. This type of ugly and arrogant nationalism is completely incompatible with the Christian faith, which confesses Jesus as Savior of the world and not merely some version of a national deity. Is it possible that American Christians actually believe that Jesus has an interest in the well-being of America over the wellbeing of, say, Mexico or China or Ethiopia? Surely not! This is “American Exceptionalism” as a ridiculous and idolatrous doctrine. Our politicians may traffic in such nonsense, but Christians must not! What Jesus is committed to is the salvation

of the world and the building up of his global church. So whereas Christians are free to participate in the civic and political process of their respective nations, Christians must

do so as those who exhibit a primary allegiance to the Jesus way—the beautiful way of the cruciform. This means treating everyone (including political enemies) with kindness, love, and respect. As followers of Christ, our mission is not to seek to rule the world through Caesar’s means of dominance—a means Jesus explicitly rejected—but to be a faithful church and thus a living example of God’s alternative society.

So, reformation is needed, and the cruciform is what can give shape to our much-needed reformation. In the cruciform we find both our proper form and, subsequently, our unique

beauty. The cruciform as a pattern gives us a means of evaluating our own form and how we present ourselves to the wider culture. With an eye on the cruciform, we can ask ourselves, “Does this attitude, this approach, this action look like Jesus on the cross?” If our attitude, approach, and action cannot be reasonably compared to the image of the cruciform, we need to abandon it. Caesar may adopt it, it may be practical, it may

even be “successful,” but if it’s not Christlike, then it’s not our pattern. Without a radical commitment to the shape of the cruciform, the process of deformation will continue year after year, and our beauty will be lost.

One of the “pliers” that distorts our Christian witness out of shape is the paradigm of protest. For far too long we have been enamored (and distorted) by protest. We love to protest. We really do. We’re good at it. We have lots of practice at it. In protest we find an outlet for our anger, we connect with like-minded people, and we at least feel like we are “making a difference” and “standing up for righteousness.” It’s exciting and cathartic. So we picket, we protest, we boycott, we form petition drives, and we write angry letters to editors and CEOs and encourage other Christians to do the same. We hold rallies where we in no uncertain terms, and with presumed divine sanction, unleash our righteous anger on a wide range of enemies. Liberals, Hollywood, gays, and Muslims are

regular targets. But does it look like the cruciform? Is it beautiful? Would a common observer look at it and say, “That’s beautiful; it reminds me of Jesus”? Do our clenched fists and furrowed brows of protest align nicely with the outstretched arms and compassionate face of Christ on the cross? If not, we have drifted from the pattern of the cruciform in our paradigm of protest, and the inevitable result will be a distortion of

Christianity. As our Christianity takes on more of a political agenda, it sloughs off resemblance to the cruciform. The result is a distinctive loss of beauty. We tend to justify our foray into the unseemly as necessary if we are to preserve morality, but I agree with Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo when he says, “True morality consists in how well we care for one another, not what sort of behaviour we wish to impose on one another.”5

Again I raise the question: Why would we do this? Why would we sacrifice the beauty of the cruciform for something everyone knows is a far cry from beautiful? Why this obsession with political power? I think the answer is that we have a carnal obsession with outcomes. It’s the ugly specter of pragmatism. We want to see a clear and obvious way that our actions are going to result in the desired outcome. We want to do good, achieve good, bring about good, vote in good, legislate good, formulate good, enforce good. So we choose the means that appear most logical in achieving this outcome. But remember, Satan never tempted Jesus with evil; Satan tempted Jesus with good. Satan enticed Jesus to go ahead and do good and to bring it about by the most direct way possible. The

temptation was to imitate the means and methods of the pharaohs and Caesars. Satan tempted Jesus to usher in a righteous world by a bloody sword. “War is impatience.”6 Obsession with outcomes and demanding to see a quick and logical way in which present action will bring about desired good are the ways of Caesar, but they are not the way of the cruciform. Obsession with outcomes is, among other things, an abandonment of faith.

Christians all believe that Jesus achieved salvation through what he did on the cross. (Though the exact way this works remains a matter of theological debate.) But on Good Friday, how could anyone have seen a “logic” in Jesus’s crucifixion? If Jesus’s intent was to save the world from the dominion of evil, how could submitting to an unjust execution at the hands of an oppressive regime accomplish anything like that? It’s absurd! Salvation is ironic because there is nothing logical or practical or obvious about the cross. Fighting is practical. Fighting is logical. Fighting has a long history of (at least temporarily) achieving desired ends. Peter was ready to fight, and presumably so were many others who followed Jesus from Galilee. But Jesus told Peter to put up his sword. There would

be no bloody revolution. No violent resistance. Not even an angry protest. Instead Jesus went to the cross, forgave his enemies, and simply died. In rejecting the way of Caesar, “Christ showed that the world was a text that could be read differently: according to the grammar not of power, but agape.”7

Did evil triumph because this good man did nothing? It certainly seemed so. But don’t forget the dying prayer of Jesus: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” I think we can understand Jesus’s prayer as something like this: “Father, I have obeyed you, I have shown the world your ways, but the world has rejected me and your ways. I forgive them, but I am dying. So now I entrust everything to you.” This is the way of the cruciform. It is the way of faith.

In going to the cross, Jesus was not being practical; he was being faithful. Jesus didn’t take a pragmatic approach to the problem of evil; Jesus took an aesthetic approach to the problem of evil. Jesus chose to absorb the ugliness of evil and turn it into something beautiful—the beauty of forgiveness. Jesus bore the sin of the world by it being sinned into him with wounds. Jesus bore the sin of the world without a word of recrimination,

but only a prayer of forgiveness. He bore the sin of the world all the way down to death. So that the apostle Peter says, “By his wounds you have been healed.” This is the beauty of the cruciform. This is beauty being derived from pain, or as Bob Dylan says, “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain.”8

In order to do a beautiful thing, Jesus had to abandon outcomes. He had to entrust the outcome to his Father. On Good Friday Jesus abandoned outcomes, embraced the cross,

and died. Jesus abandoned outcomes in order to be faithful and trust his Father. As we confess in the Apostles’ Creed, “He was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.” A lost cause. But then came Easter! The cornerstone of Christian faith is that on Easter Sunday God vindicated his Son by raising him from the dead. But until Easter Sunday no one thought of death, burial, and resurrection as a logical means of achieving good. Even today most people cannot accept the “formula” of the cruciform as a viable means of bringing about good. We want something that makes more sense. Something quicker. Something practical. And what we get are the same old ugly ways of Pharaoh and Caesar. Our embrace of the practical and ugly over the faithful and beautiful

exposes our unbelief. We are orthodox enough to confess that Jesus saves the world through his cross, but we don’t want to imitate it. So we choose the ugly forms of coercion over the beauty of the cruciform—the false morality of the Pharisee over the true morality of Christ. But our critics see this ugliness in us, even if we are unaware of it.

Part of the problem is that in the Western world we are deeply conditioned to choose the heroic over the saintly. We love our heroes best of all. Heroes are goal-oriented people of

great capabilities who know how to make things happen. We admire their ability to get things done and shape the world according to their will. Saints on the other hand—especially to the American mind—seem quaint and marginal, occupying religious spheres on the periphery of the action. We want to be heroes; we don’t really want to be saints. The difference between the heroic vision and the saintly vision is a fundamentally

different way of viewing the purpose of life.

For the hero, the meaning of life is honor . . . for the saint,

the meaning of life is love. . . . For the hero, the goal of

living is self-fulfillment, the achievement of personal

excellence, and the recognition and admiration that

making a signal contribution to one’s society through

one’s achievements carries with it. For the saint, life

does not so much have a goal as a purpose for which

each human being is responsible; and that purpose is

love: the bonds of concern and care that responsibility

for one’s fellow human beings carry with it. . . . These

two paradigms—the hero and the saint—and the way

of life that descends from each, are really two fundamentally

distinct and genuinely different visions of

human society as a whole, and even of what it means to

be a human being. They are two distinct and different

ways of asking the question of the meaning of life.9

Accepting Francis Ambrosio’s paradigms for the hero and saint, we should recognize that the way of Jesus is the way of the saint, but the way of the hero is what we tend to glorify. To speak of the goal of life in terms of self-fulfillment, achievement, and excellence is very American (originally Greek and Roman) and very popular. There are plenty of versions of American Christianity that easily accommodate this basic paradigm. Christianity understood as a program for self-improvement and success in life is how Americanized Christianity most often accommodates itself to contemporary culture. It also makes Christianity popular and “successful.” But an honest reading of the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that Jesus is teaching something radically different. In the Gospels we see Jesus through his teaching, which sets forth the alternative paradigm of the saint where the purpose of life is love, and the expression of that love is in the form

of care and compassion for our neighbor. The life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels begins as a life of teaching and ends in a life of suffering. But these are not to be separated. At the cross Jesus lived all that he taught. The life of love that Jesus proclaimed in his teaching he lived in his suffering. The life of co-suffering love is the paradigm of the saint, and it is how Jesus lived and died. It is the beauty of the cruciform.

Of course I can hear someone protesting, “But Jesus is my hero!” I understand what is meant by that, but if we are intent upon forcing Jesus into the archetype of typical hero, we distort him. In trying to make Jesus a hero, we miss the simple fact that Jesus did nothing that was conventionally heroic—at least not according to the Western ideal of heroism. Elijah was a conventional hero when he humiliated the prophets of Baal on

Mount Carmel and then executed them at the brook Kishon. But how did Jesus contend with his enemies at Calvary? Not in the heroic manner of Elijah on Carmel, but in a new and saintly way—the way of love and forgiveness. The Jesus of the Gospels is not a heroic general who slaughters his enemies, but a suffering saint who forgives his enemies. And even if one appeals to the Book of Revelation, it should be remembered

that the holy irony perceived in the prophetic metaphors is that the monstrous beasts are conquered by a little slaughtered lamb. It should be clear that the way of Christ is not the way of the conventional hero, because Jesus saves the world not by shedding the blood of his enemies, but by allowing his own blood to be shed in an act of redemptive love. This is the way of the saint, not the hero.

But we struggle with choosing the way of the saint over the way of the hero. Our Christian rhetoric is replete with calls to the heroic as we are urged to “be mighty men and women of God” and “fight the battles of the Lord” and “do great things for God.” We love the idea of being a hero and winning a great battle for God. There’s a lot of what we call “glory” in it. But we’re not so keen on laying down our lives in the manner of Christ at Calvary. We fail to comprehend the glory of the cross. So we struggle with which model to adopt. The hero or the saint? Achilles or Emmanuel? Caesar or Christ? Charlemagne or St. Francis? More often than not we end up choosing the hero, and this feeds one of the ugliest aspects of a misshapen Christianity—triumphalism.

Triumphalism is an ugly form of arrogance engendering a sense of group superiority. Triumphalism is a smugness and boastful pride that one’s nationality or religion is superior to all others. If Christians aren’t careful, they can be easily seduced into the ugliness of triumphalism. As Christians we believe that Jesus has triumphed over sin, Satan, death, hell, and the grave. We confess that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. We call Jesus King of kings and Lord of lords. But this does not entitle us to an attitude of arrogant triumphalism. Confessing the triumph of Christ

should not lead to the ugliness of triumphalism. In fact, the Christian attitude should be the very opposite.

The Christian attitude must be the deep humility exhibited by the apostle Paul when he described himself as “the foremost” of sinners. Paul was able to boldly confess the lordship of Christ while at the same time exhibiting an attitude that was completely devoid of arrogance and triumphalism. In the pluralistic cultures of the modern Western world, the ugliness of triumphalism will prevent multitudes of people from seeing the true beauty of Christianity. If we engage with people of other faiths with the attitude equivalent to “my religious founder can beat up your religious founder,” we should not be surprised if they do not see the Christian faith as inherently beautiful.

A continual turning to the cruciform leaves no room for triumphalism. Yes, Jesus triumphed over evil, but he did so by the counterintuitive way of humbling himself to the point of death, “even death on a cross.”† As we seek to assimilate the cruciform into our lives, it should always produce the beauty of a graceful humility and never the ugliness of arrogant triumphalism. If we are to show forth the beauty of Christ in our world, we must banish triumphalist attitudes from among us. It was the attitude of triumphalism in the Middle Ages that led to the ugly actions of the Crusades. Since Jesus had triumphed through the cross, it was reasoned, why not help spread his triumph through the conquest of the sword? The Crusades were the ugly offspring of a union of power-obsessed

pragmatism and arrogant religious triumphalism, and I fear that this kind of distorted thinking may have certain modern equivalents.

One more thought on heroes and saints. Heroes tend to be heroes to only one side—their side. Heroes attain their glory in an “us versus them” context. For example, the French and the Russians have decidedly different views of Napoleon, just as Americans and Mexicans will view Santa Anna differently. But saints, over time, tend to be universally recognized for their saintliness. It has to do with the universality of love. It’s why nearly everyone admires St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa of Calcutta whether or not they are Christian. St. Francis and Mother Teresa are preeminent examples of lives shaped by the cruciform to a degree that their lives of co-suffering love have come to be universally recognized as lives of beauty.

So in the present situation in which the American evangelical church finds itself, there is a desperate need to recover a theology of beauty. The way out of the mess and confusion of a politicized faith is to follow the path of beauty. It is the way of beauty that will lead us home to a more authentic Christianity. A theology of beauty is the antidote to the poison of pragmatism and the toxin of triumphalism. Perhaps no other theologian has done as much to develop a theology of beauty as the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. In his work on love as form and beauty he writes:

Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed,

and nothing else ought to be believed. This is the

achievement, the “work” of faith . . . to believe that

there is such a thing as love . . . and that there is

nothing higher or greater than it. . . . The first thing

that must strike a non-Christian about the Christian’s

faith is that . . . it is obviously too good to be true: the

mystery of being, revealed as absolute love, condescending

to wash his creatures’ feet, and even their

souls, taking upon himself all the confusion of guilt,

all the God-directed hatred, all the accusations showered

upon him with cudgels . . . all the mocking hostility

. . . in order to pardon his creature. . . . This is truly

too much.10

Indeed, it is too much! The apostle Paul would describe this extravagance as “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” The picture of God as seen in the redemptive co-suffering love of Christ is too much in the sense that it overwhelms us in much the same way that we find a stunning sculpture, a masterpiece painting, or a majestic sunset overwhelming—it is the experience of being overawed by a transcendent beauty. This is

how the gospel is made most compelling—by making it beautiful. Instead of trying to overwhelm a cynical world weary of argument and suspicious of truth claims with the force of logic and debate, what if they were overwhelmed with the perception and persuasion of beauty?

Beauty is graceful and has a way of sneaking past our defenses. It’s hard to argue with beauty. Beauty is compelling in its own way. What I am suggesting is that we look to

beauty as a primary standard for our theology, witness, and action. As radical as it may sound to those who have grown up in the sterile world of late modernity, asking the question Is it beautiful? is a valid and viable way to evaluate what we believe and do. We should ask ourselves: “Is this a beautiful doctrine?” “Is this a beautiful witness?” “Is this a beautiful practice?” Along with asking if it is true and if it is good, we should also ask if is it beautiful. Truth and goodness need beauty. Truth claims divorced from beauty can become condescending. Goodness minus beauty can become moralistic. To embrace truth and goodness in the Christian sense, we must also embrace beauty.

At least as far back as the Greek philosopher Plato, beauty was understood not merely as an adornment, but as a value as important as truth and goodness. It was only in the twentieth century that beauty began to be diminished as a value. Now we live in a day when pragmatism and utilitarian “values” have largely displaced beauty as a value. But the loss of beauty as a principal value has been disastrous for Western culture. One obvious example of what has befallen us is the loss of aesthetic sensibilities in architecture. Where once the role of architecture was to help beautify the shared space of our cities and neighborhoods, now the role of architecture is to build utilitarian structures as cheaply as possible. The result has been a profound loss of beauty. It’s a kind of vandalism. What modern building would people a thousand years from now flock to visit as we do the Notre Dame Cathedral today? If the Gothic cathedral was the architectural statement of the Middle Ages, the “big box” store may well be the architectural statement of our age. This is tragic. But what if what has happened to architecture is also happening to Christianity? What if modern architecture mirrors what is happening in modern

Christianity? What if utility is triumphing over beauty in the way we think about the church? This is alarming.

As our world turns its back on beauty, the result is that we are increasingly surrounded by ugliness and images of alienation. Think of government housing projects and the soulless

strip malls of suburbia. Art itself is under assault. Art is now largely driven, not by time-tested standards of beauty, but by the marketplace. So the question is no longer, “Is it beautiful?,” but “Will it sell?” (Is this too reflected in the church?) In a world where kitsch, profit, and vulgarity are vandalizing art, philosopher Roger Scruton worries that we are in danger of losing beauty, and with it the meaning of life.11 Yes, the loss of beauty is related to the loss of meaning. Attaining to the beautiful is a valid way of understanding the meaning of life—especially when we recognize a link between the sacred and the beautiful. For thousands of years, artists, sages, philosophers, and theologians have connected the beautiful and the sacred and identified art with our longing for God. It has only been during the modern phenomenon of secularism—what

Nietzsche described as the “death of God”—that we have severed the beautiful from the divine. But when the beautiful is severed from the absolute (God), what passes for beautiful can be anything and everything—which is to say nothing. There really is a profound connection between the loss of beauty and the loss of meaning.

Yet despite the modern assault upon art and beauty, the hunger for beauty abides deep in the human heart. That the allure of beauty is part of the human makeup is clearly seen

every time a child picks up crayons and tries to capture the beauty of the world around him. And it is to this firmly entrenched desire for beauty that we should appeal in our

efforts to communicate the gospel. If we can show a world lost in the ugliness of consumer-driven pragmatism and power-hungry politics the true beauty of Christ, it will be irresistibly appealing. For too long we have relied upon the cold logic of apologetics to persuade or the crass techniques of the marketplace to entice, when what we should do is creatively hold forth the transcendent beauty of Jesus Christ. But to do this, we must examine what we preach and what we practice in the light of the beauty of the cruciform.

We need to constantly ask ourselves, “Is this beautiful? Is this thought beautiful? Is the attitude beautiful? Is this action beautiful? Does it reflect the beauty of Christ and the cruciform?” If finger-pointing isn’t beautiful, then we should abandon it. If politically based protest isn’t beautiful, then maybe we can do without it. If the common man doesn’t recognize what we do in the name of Christ as beautiful, we should at least reexamine it. If a particular doctrine doesn’t come across as truly beautiful, then we should hold it suspect. Someone may raise the question, “Can beauty be trusted?” I believe it can, as long as we make the critical distinction between the shallow and

faddish thing that our modern culture calls “image” and the absolute value that our ancestors have always understood as beauty. We can rightly evaluate our faith and practice in terms of beauty for this very reason: The Lord and his ways are beautiful.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time.”

It’s time to recover the form and beauty of Christianity. Our enduring icon of beauty and the standard by which we gauge the beauty of our actions is the cruciform. The cross is a beautiful mystery—a mystery where an unexpected beauty is in the process of rescuing the world from its ugliness. Beauty will save the world. This is the surprising beauty of the cross when seen through the prism of the resurrection. The cross made beautiful is the ultimate triumph of God and his grace. If the crucifixion of Christ can be made beautiful, then there is hope that all the ugliness of the human condition can be redeemed by its beauty.

Review: The Names of God Bible

1 Dec

I never read J.B. Phillips classic book, Your God Is Too Small, but I’ve always liked the title.  Using the illustration of “putting God in a box,” Phillips says that we as humans try to limit an infinite God with our finite minds.  One of the ways we “limit” God is by failing to understand that He had a rich and complex personality.  God has many names including Father, Lord, I Am, God Most High, and so on, yet Bible translators have simply been content to refer to the Almighty as simply “God” or “LORD” (Yahweh/ “I Am”).  Truly, we have made the Bible far too simple and God far too small.

Instead of using a handful of names for God, The Names of God Bible contains almost 50 different names of God, which add insight and color to the God I thought I knew.  Perusing the Old Testament with this Bible adds so much insight to God’s relationship with Israel and His continuing relationship with us!  The Names of God Bible is presented in the God’s Word Translation (GW), which I found to be very readable yet scholarly.  The preface of the Bible explains the history of the GW as well as the translation process.  I read from various versions of the Bible when studying, and have found GW to be among my new favorites.  It’s not just a modern take on the Bible; GW also preserves its literary integrity.

The Names of God Bible contains a pronunciation guide for each name of God, as well as an alphabetical listing for each name. I can look up a an English translation like “Son of David” or Hebrew name like “Yahweh Roi” (The Lord is My Shepherd) to find a two page write-up on the specific name, what it means, and where it is referenced throughout the Bible.  Each chapter of the Bible includes a well-written introduction.

Besides being a great study tool, The Names of God Bible is also visually appealing.  Each page has faint hint of brown giving the Bible an ancient, antiqued feel.  The font is quite small, though very clear (though this is the case with many Bibles.)  One of my favorite cosmetic features of this Bible is the pages themselves—they are not tissue-paper thin, but REAL pages!  I can turn a page in The Names of God Bible without accidentally tearing it!  Of course, that does make the Bible heavier, but this probably isn’t a Bible you will take to church, unless you’re teaching Sunday school. (Half the people at my church read Scripture from their smart phones or on the overhead anyway.) 

Usually when I first meet someone, I generally introduce myself and ask the other person his or her name.  How can we know about God’s richness when we don’t even know His names? (Being as He’s God, He can have as many names as He wants.)  If you want to know God, if you want to call out His name, and if you are serious about studying your Bible, then The Names of God Bible with the GW translation is just what you need.

*With thanks to Revell, a subsidiary of Baker Publishing Group for my review copy of this book.*

Does this sound like a Bible you might try?  Are you familiar with the God’s Word Translation?  What is your favorite name of God?  How could this Bible help you with your own study of Scripture?

Blog Tour + Review: The Edge of Grace by Christa Allan

12 Sep

The Edge of GraceJoin Christa Allan, author of the contemporary fiction novel, The Edge of Grace (Abingdon Press), as she virtually tours the blogosphere September 5 – 30 2011 on her second virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book!

About the book…

The Edge of GraceWhen Caryn Becker answers the telephone on most Saturday morning, it’s generally not a prelude to disaster. Except this time, her brother David’s call shifts her universe. Her emotional reserves are already depleted being a single parent to six-year-old Ben after the unexpected death of her husband Harrison. But when David is the target of a brutal hate crime, Caryn has to decide what she’s willing to risk, including revealing her own secrets, to help her brother.  A family ultimately explores the struggle of acceptance, the grace of forgiveness, and moving from prejudice to love others as they are, not as we’d like them to be.

About the author…

A true Southern woman who knows that any cook worth her gumbo always starts with a roux and who never wears white after Labor Day, The Edge of Grace is Christa’s second novel. Her debut women’s fiction, Walking on Broken Glass, released in February from Abingdon Press. She is under contract for three more novels that will release in 2012 and 2013. She has been teaching high school English for over twenty years, earning her National Board Certification in 2007. The mother of five adult children and the totally smitten Grammy of two granddaughters, Christa and her veterinarian husband, Ken, live in Abita Springs, Louisiana.

Visit her website at www.christaallan.com.

You can connect with Christa at Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/ChristaAllan.Author.

Amy’s Review…

The Edge of Grace sounded like a book I would really enjoy—an edgy fiction tackling the hot button issue of homosexuality.  Unfortunately, I found this book  difficult to read, not because of the plot line, but because of the first-person narrative, in which the protagonist often interrupts her own storyline with meandering thoughts.   While this works well in the world of blogging or even in memoirs, it was frustrating in the context of this story.  Told from the first-person perspective of Caryn, a skeptical widow, who is devastated when her only brother announces his homosexuality.  I found Caryn irritationg and failed to sympathize with her feelings about her brother and the death of her husband.

The only person worse than Caryn is her best friend and neighbor, Julie.  When Caryn shares with Julie that her brother is gay, Julie reacts by telling Caryn that it’s not a big deal.  I mean, the law of female friendship states that if your friend is terribly upset—no matter what it is and if even she is wrong—then you have a reaction of equal or greater turmoil. 

Besides disliking the shallow characters, I was also put-off by the over-familiarized writing.  I felt like a serious piece of fiction was shoved into a fluffy chick lit.  It was difficult for me to read because there seemed to be unnecessary words, which I felt interfered with not only the flow of thought, but also with the overall flow of the story.

Conceptually, The Edge of Grace sounds great and has a beautiful cover.  In fact, the cover was my favorite part of the book.

Even though it wasn’t for me, maybe this book is just what you’re looking for! Visit Pump Up Your Book! to read an excerpt from The Edge of Grace.

*With thanks to Pump Up Your Book!, Christa Allan, and Abingdon Press  for the review copy of this book.*

Friday Faves: Dealing with Bummed-Outness Edition

9 Sep

Since I’m going to a Women of Faith conference (full story) this weekend, you’d think I’d be in a great mood.  I mean, what a great opportunity to commune with the people of God, right?  Absolutely!  And I feel the need for it now more than ever.  Looking for a church in the area is taking its toll on me.  So is the pressure of leading a weekly small group.  I’m giving out, but not filling up.   The rainy weather doesn’t help.  Even the local schools are closed due to flooding.  (Is it even safe to go out there?  Should I invest in a house boat?)  Really, I’m just plain ol’ bummed out.

I don’t know what to do for this depression (and anxiety) except to walk through it and know it, too, will pass.  I spend more time praying, thinking, talking to God and less time social networking, hanging out, and uh, showering.  Hopefully, the Women of Faith weekend will kick start my spirit.  Until then, here are some “faves” that help me get through the murky times.

*Bebo Norman is my go-to guy for hard times.  Whether I’m about to have a panic attack or cry my eyes out, I pop in a Bebo album and I feel immediate relief.  It reminds me of when David played his harp for King Saul when Saul was overcome with bouts of madness.  Bebo’s music is a gentle reminder that someone’s been in the depths, made it out, and that God is still very much present.  Lately, I’ve also listened to Jason Gray and Andrew Peterson, and of course, my old stand-bys–Rich Mullins and Fernando Ortega.  I used have specific playlists on my iPod for “sad times” and “mad times” and “happy times,” but they somehow got deleted.  Another song that resonates with me is “Hold My Heart” by Tenth Avenue North.  While I enjoy artists like Tenth Avenue North and Josh Wilson, when I’m down and out, their upbeat songs feel like salt rubbed into an raging wound.

*The Book of Psalms is an inspiration for many, and when nothing else makes sense, the psalms usually do.  I particularly love Psalms 42 and 46.  I also turn to the book of Hosea, which may sound like a strange choice, until you consider this passage from Hosea 3: 19-20,

“I will betroth you to me forever;
I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,
in love and compassion.
I will betroth you in faithfulness,
and you will acknowledge the LORD.”

As cliche as it sounds, the Bible is an amazing source of comfort in its prose, stories (Elijah, for one), and guidance.

*One day someone who is very dear to me gave me a copy of Henri Nouwen’s The Inner Voice of Love as a present.  She told me to read it, but not all at once, just bit by bit.  So I did, and still do.  In Nouwen’s most personal work, he shares his journal entries from a time when he underwent extreme hardship (some may call it a “nervous breakdown”).  At the urging of his friends, Nouwen published this book.  I rarely read an entry without bursting into tears. I also read Jesus Calling by Sarah Young (read review), which is great for use in small groups or for personal devotions.

*It may sound silly, but online games like Gnome Town and Words With Friends (both on Facebook) provide needed distraction.  I cannot always live in the pain, focus on the hurt, feel the depression, deal with the anxiety.  So, instead, I build a world of friendly forest creatures and get my butt kicked by high school kids who know more words than me.

*Since I’m a writer, it should come as no surprise that words at a healing balm to my soul.  In his song “The Cure for Pain,” Jon Foreman sings, “So blood is fire pulsing through our veins.  We’re either writers or fools behind the reigns.  I’ve spent ten years trying to sing it all away.  But the water keeps on falling from my tries.”  Like Foreman, I keep trying to write, not sing, it all away.  Still, I keep my journal close by and consider my notebooks full of scribbles among my most treasured possessions.  One of these days, I’m going to get a nice leather or mole skin journal (usually, I get them for 50% off at Barnes & Noble or as gifts from friends).

*Dogs, not diamonds, are a girl’s best friend.  Lonely days seem a little less lonely because of my two dogs–Cassie the Peekapoo (left) and Maddy the Shih Tzu (right).  They sense my mood and cuddle with me more often when I am down.  My bird, Kylie the Cockatiel, chirps praises to God when my spirit feels faint.  Animals are truly a gift from God.  And so are friends and family, who are willing to listen, even they don’t understand or don’t know what to do.

I’m not going to apologize for my less-than-chipper mood because it is my goal to be real, rather than entertaining.  Ideally, I like to be both, but real trumps entertaining.  Pray for me and I will pray for you!

How can I be praying for you right now?  What do you do when you feel bummed out?  Do you suffer from clinical depression and/or anxiety?  What kind of pets do you have?  Do you journal and/or blog to relieve your stress?

Blog Tour + Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

8 Sep

Join Vanessa Diffenbaugh, author of the women’s fiction book, The Language of Flowers  (Ballantine Books, August 23, 2011), as she virtually tours the blogosphere in September on her first virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book!

About the book…

Language of Flowers cover artThe Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, aster for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.
Now eighteen and emancipated from the system, Victoria has nowhere to go and sleeps in a public park, where she plants a small garden of her own. Soon a local florist discovers her talents, and Victoria realizes that she has a gift for helping others through the flowers she chooses for them. But a mysterious vendor at the flower market inspires her to question what’s been missing in her life. And when she’s forced to confront a painful secret from her past, she must decide whether it’s worth risking everything for a second chance at happiness.

About the author…

Vanessa Diffenbaugh was born in San Francisco and raised in Chico, California. After studying creative writing and education at Stanford, she went on to teach art and writing to youth in low-income communities. She and her husband, PK, have three children: Tre’von, eighteen; Chela, four; and Miles, three. Tre’von, a former foster child, is attending New York University on a Gates Millennium Scholarship. Diffenbaugh and her family currently live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where her husband is studying urban school reform at Harvard.

You can visit Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s website at www.VanessaDiffenbaugh.com.

Amy’s review…

The Language of Flowers is a truly unique tale in which the author, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, tells a back story in alternating chapters within the context of her current plot.  It is a literary device that works as we see Victoria’s life at 10 in a wonderful pre-adopt home with a single woman named Elizabeth and alternately at age 18 being emancipated from a terrible group home.   Why didn’t Elizabeth adopt Victoria?  How did she wind up back in the system?  And what is the language of flowers?

The need to answer the first two questions and interest in the language of flowers itself, drove me straight into the plot of this book.  Everything about Victoria’s personality and demeanor is “hard”–she is quiet, full of anger, full of contempt for the world.  Yet she tenderly cares for flowers–their names, their “definitions” (apparently yellow roses don’t mean “friendship”), and helping people with their own issues by making meaningful bouquets when she manages to snag a job at a flower shop. Her social awkwardness is excused by her innate ability to match flowers to people’s needs.

Despite her love for flowers and plants, Victoria isn’t “girly” and I adore that about her.  She doesn’t care how she dresses, if she smells, or how much she eats–even in front of guys!  She is a refreshing protagonist, who at times, isn’t even likable.  But as the reader comes to know Victoria and as Victoria comes to know herself, there is an increasing awareness of the depth and softness of her character.  Though there is a romance in Victoria’s life, this book is far from romantic. Even though the world “flower” is in the title, this book isn’t flowery.

It wasn’t until I stayed up way past midnight finishing The Language of Flowers that I discovered “Victoria’s Dictionary of Flowers” in the back of the book.  Apparently, Diffenbaugh spent hours pouring over various conflicting Victorian definitions of flowers to compose this dictionary, even consulting with botanists.  It would seem as if the author herself puts the same detail into her work as her characters put into the tedious task of growing flowers. The Language of Flowers is an excellent book, full of emotion, characters that have dimension, and a fresh premise in a world of tired story lines.

Visit Pump Up Your Book! to read an excerpt from The Language of Flowers.

*With thanks to Pump Up Your Book!, Vanessa Diffenbaugh, and Ballantine Books  for the review copy of this book.*

Have you ever heard of the Victorian “language of flowers”? (I hadn’t until I read this book!)  Does this sound like something you’d read–why or why not?  What do you find interesting about The Language of Flowers? If you read the book, what did you think?

FIRST Wild Card Tour + Review: Passion to Action by Jay and Beth Loecken

7 Sep

Amy’s Thoughts: Due to pressing personal circumstances, I didn’t finish Passion to Action yet. However, what I read has intrigued me. I can’t imagine a family giving up the “American dream” for a Kingdom dream. However, that’s exactly what the Jay and Beth Loecken did. At first, I thought it was a little cruel to force their kids to go along with this vision, but then again, what better way to teach the Loecken children than by example. Sure, they don’t won’t have the same experiences as their peers. Neither did the missionary kids I met as I grew older. You know what? That’s OK. We only have one life to make a difference and we can start making that difference at any age. (Read on to learn more about Passion to Action and peruse the first chapter.)

***

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Passion to Action

Guideposts (September 2011)

***Special thanks to Audra Jennings, Senior Media Specialist, The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Jay Loecken grew up on an eighty-acre hobby farm in Minnesota as the youngest of three boys. His upbringing was solid with loving parents who were always encouraging him to try new things. He grew up in a Christian home, but his faith really began to develop during his sophomore year at Northwestern College while living in Dublin, Ireland for the summer and working with Greater Europe Mission. That’s when the Bible began to come to life for him and he began developing his own convictions.

Beth Loecken’s upbringing could not have been any more different. She grew up in Kansas City in a Catholic home as the youngest of six children. Her mother battled depression and eventually committed suicide when Beth was only five. Beth’s father retreated into alcoholism, leaving her in a chaotic and unstable environment where she was often abused. After graduating from high school, she moved to New York where she discovered her first true love—Jesus. He offered her a love and redemption she had craved her entire life.

Visit the author’s website.

SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Jay and Beth Loecken were an ordinary family searching for meaning in their lives while living the American Dream. They owned their dream house, drove nice cars, and from the outside seemed to have all they needed. Yet something kept pulling at them—a stirring, a sense that they were being called to a greater purpose in life. They couldn’t escape the feeling that there was more to life than the relentless pursuit of material possessions.

Product Details:

List Price: $19.99

Hardcover: 238 pages

Publisher: Guideposts (September 2011)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0824948572

ISBN-13: 978-0824948573

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

DECEMBER 2006 ATLANTA, GEORGIA

BETH» Something unsettling had been stirring in our hearts for a very long time. We both knew we wanted—no, make that needed—something more out of life than what we had already achieved. By all definitions, we were living the good life: privileged and full of prosperity. Jay’s business as a mortgage broker had afforded us a very comfortable lifestyle. We owned a forty-five-hundred-square-foot house in Alpharetta, Georgia, that was our dream home—right down to the perfect and beautifully landscaped backyard we had just finished putting the final touches on.

Although we weren’t wealthy, we were quite comfortable. We were actively involved in our church, had a great family life, and were living a pretty good existence. Our four children didn’t have to wear secondhand clothes. We were able to take the entire family to the movies and out to dinner whenever we wanted to without thinking about the cost. We pretty much had the ability to have whatever we wanted at the drop of a hat.

Along with our home, we owned two cars, a motorcycle, and were close to purchasing a new boat and convertible BMW. For years we gave ourselves almost every luxury a family like ours could hope for.

Our lifestyle had become what you might think of as ideal—the American dream personified. Yet with all of the success we had achieved, and although we were generally happy, we were not feeling fulfilled. There was a void in us—an emptiness that living only for oneself brings. We weren’t comfortable living caught up in what other people thought of us.

While Jay was making loads of money, we trusted in our finances instead of God. If or when we had a need, it was taken care of without a thought.

We were living the dream—right?

The only problem was that we no longer needed to depend on God. It was easy to stop trusting in Him for provision and relying on Him for our needs. Our relationship with Jesus became less desperate and, at times, stagnant.

Four years of living the dream and still, we couldn’t shake an ever-present feeling that kept tugging at Jay and me.

Simply said, we knew there had to be more; but we had absolutely no idea what it was we were looking for.

There was a void, a longing, an empty place deep inside of us that seemed to quietly whisper that our lives were missing “something.” We thought the something was more stuff. We had struggled financially for years prior to coming to Atlanta, and the fact that we could buy new furniture and make all the updates to our home without a thought felt good. We thought the something that was missing from our previous financially strapped life was things: a comfortable lifestyle, kids in sports, nice clothes, a nice neighborhood, and a settled life. The only problem was that once those things were all purchased or attained, they seemed to breed more discontent. One purchase or update led to another and it went on and on. The something was never filled; in fact, material things seemed to make the ache grow deeper because they caused us to realize that we would never be filled that way.

When our life would finally quiet down (typically on a Sunday), and after hearing a great message at church, we would follow the thousands of others who filed out of church, jump in our nice car, and head home. But we began to notice a deep loneliness and hollowness. We felt sadly alone, empty, and purposeless. We never felt this way when our life was hurried and chaotic. In fact, when we noticed the emptiness creeping in, we would busy ourselves around the house, cleaning, organizing, “doing” so that we didn’t have to answer the ever-noticeable voice we both heard calling to us. In many ways, we didn’t want to face the questions that were rising up inside of us.

Did our lives matter?

What were our goals?

Is this really the abundant life?

What are we craving?

The ache was not there in the beginning; but as our dream life ended up not being the big deal that we thought it would be, it began to grow and grow in our hearts. I think we glamorized what having money would be like. I believe we thought that all of our financial worries would be over, all of our longings would be fulfilled, our hearts would be content, and our relationships would be rich. That couldn’t have been further from the truth. The more we owned, the more stress and responsibility we had. The more things we filled our life up with, the less time we had for deep relationships.

Once we had money, we stopped praying about whether to purchase items.

It was simple, did we want it? Check.

Did we have the perfect location in our house for it? Check.

Could we afford it? Check.

Our evaluation process did not involve God in any way. Our needs were met simply by Jay working harder and longer hours. The harder he worked, the bigger his paycheck was. We made sacrifices and began to place money and material things in front of family time and our marriage. I didn’t get upset or nag him when he would come home at eight o’clock when the kids were slipping into bed—because, selfishly, I wanted to live the life we were living. I wanted to be able to finish our basement and drive a nice car. It was a vicious cycle, and it slowly began to chip away at the foundation of our marriage and family. When times are good, you think they will always be good and you often don’t or can’t see what’s around the corner.

But something clicked when we started to think about the dreams for authentic living that we had given up. We somehow saw that what was happening was the complete opposite. We realized that we had let the deceitfulness of money creep into our lives. We knew we needed a change.

In an effort to clearly understand what was missing, we decided to spend a weekend alone at our friends’ condo in downtown Atlanta. We needed a change of atmosphere to focus on figuring out our next move. The friends who offered us their condominium agreed to watch our children for the weekend up at our house. A weekend in the suburbs sounded pretty good to them—even with four kids who were not theirs!

While most couples would take a weekend away from their kids to enjoy each other’s company, check out the newest trendy restaurant or nightclub, or just blow off a little steam, we chose to do none of those things.

Nope.

Our weekend was devoted to figuring out what it was we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. We went on long walks and shared our deepest thoughts and feelings about life, fulfillment, and our discontent. As we spoke, we both realized that we no longer wanted our lives to be about ourselves. It’s hard to imagine that the parents of four young children could possibly feel selfish in any way—but we did. We were always present as parents, but our thoughts rarely extended beyond the white picket fence that surrounded our peaceful and sheltered existence. We had a deep desire to make our lives about something so much bigger than our tiny little bubble we’d been living in.

We talked about all of the friends we’d made over the years and how we each craved deeper relationships than we shared with most of them. I look back on the early years of our marriage when we had very deep, rich relationships. What was different back then? Why didn’t we have that now with couples in Atlanta? I think the number-one factor was time or the lack thereof. It takes time to build a friendship and to grow close to people. When we were first married, we had time. Looking back, I can’t believe how much time we had! Now, years later, we had four kids, a busy family, and a hectic lifestyle. Free time was a thing of the past.

We often reminisced about the “good ol’ days” when life was simple and relationships and time with other couples came easy. We began to realize that we wanted a different version of our old life. We wanted simplicity, deeper relationships, and time.

The other obstacle to forming deep friendships was our willingness to be vulnerable and open with our lives. Jay and I have always been open people who lay everything out on the table. Some people simply don’t like that. It makes them uncomfortable to talk about their feelings, mistakes, or marital disagreements. We find it refreshing because—let’s face it—we all have struggles. We have never really enjoyed being around people who give the impression that they have it all together. This type of phoniness leads to artificial relationships that never seem to go anywhere.

We had a hard time finding like-minded people we meshed with in Atlanta too. We are very simple, down-to-earth people, and we felt a little out of place living the “big lifestyle.” We would go to events and parties and feel like we didn’t fit in. Jay doesn’t wear penny loafers, and I don’t wear designer clothes. We prefer Converse sneakers, Target, and knock-offs.

Often we would find ourselves gravitating to the members of the band performing at the parties. At the time, hearing about their broken marriages and past drug addictions, they were the only ones we could see who seemed real. That was more real to us than trying to keep up with shallow small talk that seemed to inundate the events we attended.

We tried to fit in, wear the right clothes, say the right things, rub shoulders with the right people; but at the end of the day we were empty. We realized that we are really just who we are—simple, average people—and we will never be happy being people we are not.

We were created to be in relationships: first and foremost with God and then with people. Most human beings crave love and desire to be known. Some of us may not admit it, but it’s real. We need each other. Although we did not find the depth of relationships we were seeking in Atlanta, I personally found that connection with two close women friends. Jay, however, did not; and that took a toll on him. Yes, we have each other and we are best friends, but sometimes a guy just needs to be with “the guys.” They need to play golf, talk about work, and relate on a man-to-man level. I couldn’t offer Jay what he could only get from someone who walks in his shoes. He did stay in contact with other close, out-of-town friends, and that seemed to fill the void.

After two days and endless hours of dialogue, we knew there was a higher calling reaching out to us. We wanted to somehow give back for all of the good fortune and blessings God had bestowed upon us. Our decision was to find a mission trip through our church that would give us the opportunity to do something for those in need and the poor.

»»»»»

We had both seen images on television with the beautiful and innocent faces of African children in need. Who among us can honestly say those unforgettable photos don’t move you or tug at your heartstrings?

Not us!

We can’t explain our attraction and the heart we had for Africa other than just knowing in the deepest part of our souls that this was where we wanted to go to be of service. We knew seeing those faces live and in person would make their plight all too real; and, therefore, it would be a life-changing experience. Of course, at the time, we had no way of knowing just how far it would take us away from the only life we had ever known.

When we started looking into mission trip options, the only destination our church was currently offering that allowed families was to China. No offense to China, but we didn’t want to go there. Frustrated and unsure of what to do next, we prayed about our desire to serve in Africa until one day, not long after we made the decision to do this type of mission work, we spoke to Jenny Strange. She was one of several people responsible for mission trips at North Point, our church. North Point Community Church is a large church in Alpharetta, Georgia led by Pastor Andy Stanley, the son of Charles Stanley. Andy started this church in 1995 not because Atlanta needed another church, but because he wanted to create a safe place where people who were seeking the truth about Jesus Christ would feel comfortable attending. I think he was successful because North Point now has over twenty thousand people who attend their weekend services.

The missions department decided to open up a trip for families to Africa. The mission was going to be a joint effort between North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Georgia, and 410 Bridge, an organization that partners people and groups with communities in Kenya.

Perfect!

This was exactly what we hoped to find.

As we continued to discuss the opportunity, Jenny told us she was still looking for someone to actually lead the trip.

“I think you’d be perfect for it,” she said, as she and Jay spoke over the phone.

We hadn’t thought about the responsibility that comes with leading such a trip, but we also knew God works in very mysterious ways. Everything happens for a reason. If being a leader was what she was asking from us, then who were we to turn her down?

We spent the next six months preparing for our trip. We were headed to a tiny village two hours north of Nairobi called Kiu. When the word spread that there was a missions trip to Africa, several local families reached out to express their interest in participating with us. We had the rare and fortunate opportunity to handpick the people we thought would comprise the very best team. After many hours of meetings and deliberations, we decided on six families who would join us on this journey, with a total of twenty-two of us altogether.

We planned to take our three oldest children—Ben, Bekah, and Abigail—with us. It was difficult to leave Noah, our youngest son, behind; but he was only four years old at the time, which we felt was too young to make this type of trip.

Working closely with 410 Bridge, we were able to assess exactly what the community we were going to serve wanted from our group so we could work together with the locals when we arrived. We discovered that these types of trips are highly organized. There was a tremendous amount of communication with the village prior to our arrival. After months of dialogue and preparation, the people in Kiu decided that our goal for the ten days we would be there was to build a chicken coop that would house twenty-five hundred chickens.

Undertaking this type of project had several benefits to the locals. First, it would provide a steady source of nourishment. Second, involving the locals meant there would be a common project aimed at getting their troubled youth off the streets. Third, building the chicken coop would provide them with some sort of a business enterprise so they could sell the eggs and, eventually, the chickens.

As the mission trip grew closer, we tried to imagine the journey that was ahead. We counted our blessings for the opportunity we had—not just ours, but also for the experience we were about to give to our children.

When we first signed up for the trip, we thought our group would go to Kiu and help the people with their project in a tangible way while building some new relationships. This experience was the first time we realized the importance of working alongside a community instead of coming in and imposing on them what we think or how we live.

The people from 410 Bridge did an excellent job preparing us for the trip. They gave us a very strict list of dos and don’ts so we didn’t make any colossal errors in judgment. They explained to us that no matter how badly we desired to make things better for the people we were about to meet, our mission was to go in and build a chicken coop—working alongside and developing relationships with the African people.

They told us not to give the children shoes because their feet had toughened up from years of surviving barefoot. Once they start to wear shoes, their feet can no longer take the extreme conditions because they soften up. What we would have perceived as doing something to help them would actually hurt them in the long run.

Helping them adjust to our contemporary lifestyle wasn’t the reason we were there. Our Western mentality and mindset is to fix things, throw money at the problem until it is no longer of concern, and basically make it all better. It’s hard to come up with a solution when we don’t necessarily have a full understanding of the problem or their way of life. We quickly discovered that our way of thinking doesn’t solve their problems. Long-term change comes with time, perseverance, education, and dedication. The people we were endeavoring to meet had the same drive, initiative, desire, and ultimate goals we did but lacked the resources to facilitate those ideas. Helping provide those resources was the main purpose of our presence in their community.

FIRST Wild Card Tour: Hell is Real (But I Hate to Admit It) by Brian Jones

22 Aug

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today’s Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Hell is Real (But I Hate to Admit It)

David C. Cook (August 1, 2011)

***Special thanks to Audra Jennings, Senior Media Specialist, The B&B Media Group for sending me a review copy.***

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Brian Jones is the senior pastor at Christ’s Church of the Valley, an innovative community of faith in the suburbs of Philadelphia. Brian is a graduate of Cincinnati Christian University (B.A.) and Princeton Theological Seminary (M. Div.) and has served in leadership positions in churches for over twenty years. His humorous and raw style has made him a popular speaker for conferences, seminars, churches and retreats.

Visit the author’s website.

SHORT BOOK DESCRIPTION:

Recently, the media has ignited in a brimstone blaze of controversy over the question of Hell, and the idea that’s generating so much attention is that Hell isn’t real, and even if it were, a loving God wouldn’t possibly send people there. Is Hell real, or is it a concept that is misguided and out of place in today’s Christianity? Many believe the answer to this question will have profound implications on the future of the faith, and important personalities on both sides of this question are drawing lines in the sand.

If you would like to hear his sermon on Hell is Real, see video below…

Product Details:

List Price: $14.99

Paperback: 272 pages

Publisher: David C. Cook (August 1, 2011)

Language: English

ISBN-10: 0781405726

ISBN-13: 978-0781405720

AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:

Eternal Damnation, Really?

The great Christian revolutions come not by the discovery of something that was not known before. They happen when somebody takes radically something that was always there.

—H. Richard Niebuhr1

My three daughters know that I have one sacred, unbreakable rule when our family drives anywhere on vacation: If you have to go to the bathroom once we’re on the highway, you better have a Pringles can close by because we’re not stopping.

I’ve learned the hard way that when it comes to small bladders, you have to exert martial law on the hole van. Otherwise you’ll spend half your vacation touring the country’s finest rest stops and eating twelve times the daily recommended allowance of pork rinds. In fact, after years of driving to remote vacation spots, I’ve learned four key principles for a successful road trip with kids: Keep ’em sleeping, keep ’em separated, keep ’em dehydrated, and keep ’em watching videos. If complaining erupts, I’ve also found it helpful to have memorized Bill Cosby’s classic line: “I brought you into this world; I can take you out!”2

There have been times, however, I’ve been tempted to break my own rules. For instance, I’ll never forget the time we drove from Dayton, Ohio, to Dallas. We had just stopped in Louisville to fill up, and after twenty minutes we had successfully emptied all the bladders, gotten situated with our snacks, and pulled back on the road heading toward the highway. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a plume of smoke rising from the rooftop of a small apartment complex. I looked for a chimney but saw none. I reassured myself that surely someone had already called 911 and everything would be fine.

Besides, I thought, I can’t even tell for sure if there’s a fire.

Yet something inside of me kept wondering, What if I’m the only person who is seeing this right now? As I approached the onramp I went back and forth in my head, Should we stop? Should we keep going? Should we stop? We don’t have time for this! But what if I’m the only person—I swerved to the left at the last second, drove past the onramp, and circled back into the apartment complex. My guilt (or basic human decency) had won out.

As I pulled up I discovered that it was in fact a fire, and by then the flames had engulfed a large part of the roof. Worse, my suspicion was accurate—we were the only ones there. I asked my wife, Lisa, to call 911, and then I ran inside to warn people to get out.

Once I reached the third floor, I frantically started to bang on the doors, one by one, but at each door there was no response. I then ran down to the second floor and did the same. As I was about to go down to the first floor, a shirtless young man with disheveled hair stuck his head out of one of the second-floor units. He cracked the door open, and as I ran back to meet him, I was hit with a wall of marijuana smoke.

“Yo, my man, what’s up?” he said with a slight grin.

“What’s up is that your apartment is about to burn to the ground. Put your joint down and help me get people out of here!”

We ran down the steps to the first floor. Two couples responded to our knocking. “There’s an elderly lady on the third floor!” one woman shouted. “Did you get her out?”

My heart sank. After racing back up to the third floor, we began furiously pounding on her door. The first-floor neighbor yelled, “She gets confused easily. We may have to break down the door.” But just as she said that the handle slowly began to turn. Coughing, confused, and minutes away from being consumed by the fire, she followed her neighbors down to safety. As we stepped out the front door, we heard sirens in the distance. After we guided the elderly woman into the hands of the paramedics, I turned around and watched the firemen storm up the apartment steps to stop the blaze.

As I stood there, the weight of it all hit me. I let out a deep sigh and thought to myself, What would have happened if I had kept driving?

A few hours later, when my adrenaline had finally worn down and the kids were asleep, a bizarre thought came out of nowhere. I call it a “thought” because to this day I’m still not sure if what popped into my mind came from God or from the triple stack of chocolate chip pancakes from IHOP digesting in my stomach. Here’s what came to my mind:

Let me get this straight: You’re willing to run into a

burning building to save someone’s life, but non-

Christians all around you are going to hell and you

don’t believe it, let alone lift a finger to help.

Admittedly, I was a little freaked out by the “thought,” but at the time I blew it off as a lingering remnant of my conservative-evangelical upbringing.

Four years prior to this event I had graduated from seminary, and with the endless boxes of books I lugged into the moving truck when I left, I also packed my watered-down theology, a healthy dose

of skepticism about biblical authority, and a nail-tight conviction that hell was a mythological concept that no loving and thinking Christian could accept. I had weighed the evidence, read all the books, and sat at the feet of experts for three years. Now the verdict was in—the Bible’s teaching about hell was inaccurate at best and hateful at worst. What I was taught as a child was a lie, and now that I was becoming a pastor, I was sure I’d never perpetuate that ridiculous myth again.

Objections to Hell

Undoubtedly, you’re a smart person. You like to read, and you were intrigued enough by the topic of hell and eternal damnation to give this book a go (either that or the bookstore didn’t have that Dan Brown novel you were looking for). And so I think you can understand the six good reasons it seemed ridiculous to me that God would send anyone to hell. Read through these objections and see if you resonate with how I felt.

1. Hell Is a Very Unpopular Idea

Hell has always been an unpopular concept, and for obvious reasons. According to a recent survey by The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, only 59 percent of Americans believe in hell.3 That’s six out of ten people, a slight majority in any room. But another poll narrowed the question even more and discovered that “fewer than half of all Americans (43 percent) thought people go to heaven or hell depending on their actions on earth.”4 Furthermore, in twenty-five years of being a pastor, I would add that maybe three out of every ten Christians I’ve met truly believe people who die without becoming Christians go to hell.

The fact that so few people believe in hell made me wonder if it was about as factual as the lost city of Atlantis.

2. The Punishment Doesn’t Fit the Crime

To my post-seminary self, sending someone to hell for all eternity seemed tantamount to sending someone to death row for stealing a postage stamp. Enduring physical, emotional, and spiritual torture not just for a year, or ten years, or billions of years on end, but for all eternity—it just didn’t seem fair. In fact, it seemed hateful and absurd. Who would propose such a punishment on anyone for anything done in this life? Atheist William C. Easttom put it this way,

God says, “Do what you wish, but make the wrong

choice and you will be tortured for eternity in hell.”

That … would be akin to a man telling his girlfriend,

do what you wish, but if you choose to leave

me, I will track you down and blow your brains

out. When a man says this we call him a psychopath

and cry out for his imprisonment/execution.

When God says the same we call him “loving” and

build churches in his honor.5

When I looked at it from this vantage point, I understood why Tertullian, a well-known pastor in the early church, wrote, “We get ourselves laughed at for proclaiming that God will one day judge the world.”6 In eighteen hundred years that sentiment hasn’t really changed.

3. Life Is Hell Enough

The more I thought about the concept of eternal punishment, the more I kept thinking to myself, Don’t most people go through enough hell in one lifetime? Think about all the suffering people go through in this life. Hell just didn’t make any sense to me. One blogger does a fantastic job of illustrating this point:

Given life’s headaches, backaches, toothaches,

strains, scrapes, cuts, rashes, burns, bruises, breaks,

PMS, fatigue, hunger, odors, molds, colds, parasites,

viruses, cancers, genetic defects, blindness, deafness,

paralysis, retardation, deformities, ugliness, embarrassments,

miscommunications, confused signals,

ignorance, unrequited love, dashed hopes, boredom,

hard labor, repetitious labor, old age, accidents, fires,

floods, earthquakes, typhoons, tornadoes, hurricanes,

and volcanoes, I cannot see how anyone, after

they’re dead, deserves “eternal punishment” too.7

4. Hell Seems Intolerant and Hateful

One of the biggest things that weighed on me was how cruel and arrogant the concept of hell sounded when I talked about it with good friends of mine who weren’t Christians.

A friend once asked me, “How can you believe my great-grandparents who brutally suffered and died in the Holocaust won’t go to heaven just because they didn’t believe in Jesus? They were loving, God-fearing people.” I didn’t have a good answer, and the lack of an answer that sounded loving and moral troubled me immensely. The vast majority of people on this planet think that believing anyone—except people like Hitler who commit heinous crimes against humanity—would go to hell is arrogant, insensitive, ignorant, and hateful.

Victor Hugo wrote, “Hell is an outrage on humanity. When you tell me that your deity made you in his image, I reply that he must have been very ugly.”8 I had to agree. What kind of God would send

anyone to hell? I thought.

5. Respected Evangelical Scholars Reject the Idea of Hell

What troubled me even more was that everywhere I turned, noted Christian scholars confirmed my inner struggle. For instance, evangelical theologian Clark Pinnock wrote,

I consider the concept of hell as endless torment in

body and mind an outrageous doctrine.… How can

Christians possibly project a deity of such cruelty

and vindictiveness whose ways include inflicting

everlasting torture upon his creatures, however sinful

they may have been? Surely a God who would do

such a thing is more nearly like Satan than like God.9

Statements like this made sense to me. Knowing that highly educated people like Pinnock and others thought this way gave me more confidence that it might be okay to veer away from my traditional

Christian beliefs if I chose to do so. If they veered from clear biblical teachings, why couldn’t I?

6. I Like Being Liked

Finally, truth be told, the need to be liked was a real factor in my personal struggle. I hated the fact that I could have friendships with people, but if I stayed true to my Christian beliefs, I felt like I had to spend all my time and energy trying to convert them. I wanted to embrace them, cherish their uniqueness, understand their beliefs, and celebrate our diverse cultural and religious upbringings. Hell was an affront to all of this. I didn’t want to be thought of as the nutty, intolerant guy who was always trying to get people to admit that they were sinners in need of a Savior. I wanted to be the cool, relevant, and intelligent pastor people liked and wanted their friends to know.

Do you resonate with any of those objections to hell?

An Unexpected Confrontation

The combined weight of the attacks by my professors and the sheer immorality of the idea itself finally broke the theological dam open for me. Over time I simply gave up on the idea, proudly. The problem was that believing the Bible is God’s Word is, well, up near the top of any pastor’s job description, at least in an evangelical church. I needed a job, so I came up with what seemed like a simple solution:

I would never tell anyone about my disbelief. In fact, I carried my secret around for four years after graduate school without ever telling anyone, not the people who went to my church, not the staff with whom I worked, not my friends, not even my wife. The secret was so well hidden that sometimes I was able to forget about it—until that apartment fire in Louisville, and then again a few months later at a monastery in northwest Ohio.

I was in the habit of going to a monastery roughly once a month for a spiritual retreat. I would arrive early in the day to pray, journal, take long walks in the woods, and leave late in the afternoon. On one such retreat I felt an overwhelming sense of spiritual pressure, the spiritual equivalent of the kind of pressure you feel in your ears when swimming in deep water. I sensed that something was wrong, but I didn’t know what it was. For the better part of the day, I locked myself into a cold, cement-block room and asked God to show me the source of my consternation.

For the first three hours, I heard nothing—my prayers seemed as if they were bouncing off the ceiling. By noon I felt like I was starting to make a connection with God, but I wasn’t prepared for what happened next, when I felt God’s Spirit impress upon my heart, “Brian, this charade has to end. You’re a pastor and your job is to teach people the Bible, but you don’t believe what you’re teaching. You don’t believe in hell.”

I was a little startled, so I picked up my Bible and did something I had up to that point discouraged people in my church from doing—I played what I call “Bible Roulette.” In his book Formula for a Burning Heart, A. W. Tozer said, “An honest man with an open Bible and a pad and pencil is sure to find out what is wrong with him very quickly.”10 I can attest to the truth of that statement.

I closed my eyes, wildly fanned the pages back and forth, and randomly pointed to passages and read them. The first passage was about eternal punishment. I looked up at the ceiling and said, “That’s a coincidence.” The second passage was about God’s wrath. This time I felt a little uneasy. Then I did it a third time and couldn’t believe my eyes—eternal punishment again. I’m not usually the most mystical person in the world, but I slowly closed the pages of my Bible, put it down on the table next to me, and said, “I get the message.” Church leaders must “keep hold of the deep truths of the faith with a clear conscience” (1 Tim. 3:9), and hell is one of those “deep truths.”

I spent the next five hours reading and underlining every passage about hell in the New Testament, and as I did, I felt an overwhelming sense of conviction. What I discovered shocked me. I had always assumed that the Bible contained only a few scattered references to hell. I was wrong; hell is taught everywhere.

Take the book of Matthew, for instance, just one book among twenty-seven in the entire New Testament. Here is what we learn about hell from that book alone:

Twelve separate passages record Jesus’ teachings about the judgment of nonbelievers and their assignment to eternal punishment.11 Matthew 13:49–50 summarizes them all: “This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Jesus employed the most graphic language to describe what hell is like: fire (Matt. 5:22; 18:9); eternal fire (18:8); destruction (7:13); away from his presence (7:23); thrown outside (8:12; 22:13; 25:30); blazing furnace (13:42); darkness (22:13; 25:30); eternal punishment (25:46); weeping and gnashing of teeth (8:12; 13:42; 13:50; 22:13; 24:51).

Jesus twice used the word eternal (18:8; 25:46) to convey that the punishment of nonbelievers would continue forever.

As I moved from the Gospels into the rest of the New Testament, I was struck by how the writers unashamedly addressed the issue. There is no hesitancy or apology in their words. The basic tone is,

“This is a reality. Now let’s get out there and tell people how to avoid it.” Second Thessalonians 1:7–9 summarizes what these other New Testament authors taught:

This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed

from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful

angels. He will punish those who do not know God

and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They

will be punished with everlasting destruction and

shut out from the presence of the Lord and from

the glory of his might.

My heart raced as I flipped page after page after page. I discovered, by the end of my study, that the New Testament’s teaching about hell is not an ambiguous topic supported by a few hard-to understand passages. It is inescapable: Virtually every book in the New Testament underscores some aspect of the reality of hell. Jesus taught it; Paul, Peter, and every early church leader taught it, but I wasn’t teaching it. I realized I had a decision to make. Could I discount what Jesus taught about hell if I based my belief in heaven on similar passages in the same books?

Could it be possible that Jesus’ disciples actually had some of the same reservations I had but still persisted in teaching it because they knew in the depths of their souls that hell was real? Wasn’t my hesitancy to believe in hell a sign of my compassion for people? Yet, if hell really exists, and I knew that but wasn’t willing to tell people how to avoid it, wouldn’t that also be the most extreme form of cruelty imaginable? Most of all, could it be that I was ultimately basing my acceptance of this teaching more on what people thought of me than on whether I felt it was intellectually plausible?

As the weight of it all finally set in, I dropped to my knees, stretched out my arms and legs to the sides, and fell prostrate on the unfinished concrete monastery floor. Not content, however, with the act of simply lying facedown, I shoved my face over and over against the concrete as if an invisible hand pushed against the base of my neck. I buried my face in the silence and wept. After an hour or so passed, I just couldn’t stomach listening to myself any longer. I stood up, gathered my belongings, and walked out of the monastery retreat house I had rented for the day. While my planning retreat certainly didn’t end quite like I thought it would, I left knowing exactly what I needed to do.

I drove straight home and met Lisa in our kitchen, sharing everything that had transpired from beginning to end, and then I begged for her forgiveness. Then I drove over to the church, gathered my staff, and did the same. Later that night at an emergency Leadership Team meeting, I walked our bewildered church overseers step-by-step through every detail of my secret. A few days later, standing before the church, I completely fell apart. Four long years of strategic rationalizing couldn’t protect me from the inevitable—my sin had indeed found me out.

Do you want to know what’s scary? When I confessed this, nobody really cared. In fact, the response from a man on my Leadership Team captured the response of just about everyone: “Oh, thank God. You really scared me,” he said. “I thought you called us together to tell us that you did something serious like have an affair.”

Want to know what’s even scarier? You probably agree with him.

I’ve shared that story hundreds of times over the last two decades, and each time I’ve always gotten the same reaction: “Let me get this straight—you started believing in hell again because you reread every passage in the New Testament that talked about hell and then fell on the ground and asked for forgiveness?”

When you put it that way, well, then yes, that’s exactly how it happened. But it wasn’t that simple. There was much more going on beneath the surface. Undergirding that experience were two foundational truths that I didn’t come to realize until much later.

Christians must repent of “sins of disbelief ” in the same way they repent of “sins of behavior.”

Most Christians I know think they need to ask God’s forgiveness only for things they do that are outside of God’s will for His followers. Did I lie today? I need to ask for forgiveness. Did I gossip? I need

to ask for forgiveness for that sin too. Did I take something that wasn’t mine? I’ll ask for forgiveness for that as well. Sins of disbelief are no different. 1 Timothy 4:16 says, “Watch your life and doctrine closely.

Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

It’s life and doctrine—we can sin against God in both how we act and how we think. Both our actions and our thoughts should be under Christ’s control because both have the power to negatively impact our relationship with God and the spiritual walk of everyone around us. We can’t live our lives guided by the Word of God and then allow our minds to function differently. Scripture tells us to love the Lord our God with … what? All our hearts, souls, and minds! How we think is a reflection of our love for God. Don’t believe me? Reread the New Testament and notice how many times the phrase false teachers pops up. Then look at how ruthlessly Paul and other church leaders deal with false teaching.

Christians don’t think their way out of a faith crisis; they repent their way out of a faith crisis.

When it comes to leaving behind “sins of disbelief,” recapturing a biblically correct position regarding the reality of hell (and the fact that non-Christians will go there) is never accomplished by laying out all the evidence and weighing the options. It’s about obedience to Jesus Christ. At its core, believing in hell is an obedience issue, not a theological issue. Am I willing to trust Christ to forgive my sins? That’s an obedience issue. Am I also willing to trust what He says about heaven? Of course. He’s my Lord. If He says it, I believe it. Then why would the issue of hell be any different? As Oswald Chambers wrote,

The golden rule for understanding spiritually is not

intellect, but obedience. If a man wants scientific

knowledge, intellectual curiosity is his guide; but

if he wants insight into what Jesus Christ teaches,

he can only get it by obedience. If things are dark

to me, then I may be sure there is something I will

not do.12

The fact of the matter is: Hell is real. Deciding whether or not hell exists isn’t an intellectual exercise; it’s a matter of eternal life or death. Of course I still have doubts about hell from time to time, but the point is my relationship with the risen Jesus supersedes all my doubts. The reality you and I need to grasp is that this is happening. Right now. On our watch. This is happening to friends and acquaintances of yours and mine who aren’t Christians. And you and I have one decision to make in this matter—are we going to keep on driving and pretend we know nothing, or are we going to turn around?

If you’re ready to slam on the brakes and do a 180, I’ll sit in the passenger’s seat and take that ride with you. I’ll help you understand why hell makes sense. I’ll also help you feel good about believing in the Bible—all of it. I’ll help you feel confident defending what you believe before your friends who lump you together with the crazy televangelists who make people want to throw up in their mouths. Together we’ll discover that believing what the Bible teaches regarding hell is logical, fair, and above all else—loving.

And finally, if you let me, I’ll also coach you on how you can have authentic conversations with your friends without getting creepy in the process. That’s really, really important. More on that later.

However, I have one tiny piece of advice: You might want to grab a Pringles can because we’re not stopping.

Notes

1. H. Richard Niebuhr, quoted in Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace?

(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 13–14.

2. Bill Cosby, “The Grandparents,” Himself (Motown, 1983), compact disc.

3. Greg Garrison, “Many Americans Don’t Believe in Hell, but What

about Pastors?” USA Today, August 1, 2008, http://www.usatoday.com/news/

religion/2009-08-01-Hell-damnation_N.htm.

4. Christiane Wicker, “‘How Spiritual Are We?’ The PARADE Spirituality Poll,”

PARADE, October 4, 2009, 5.

5. William C. Easttom II, quoted in Gary Poole, How Could God Allow Suffering

and Evil? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 59.

6. Tertullian, The Apology, quoted in Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson,

trans., Ante-Nicene Fathers (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 4:52.

7. Edward T. Babinski, “Hell and Heaven, and Satan, and Christian Superstition,”

October 22, 2005, http://www.edwardtbabinski.us/skepticism/heaven_hell.html.

8. Victor Hugo, quoted in Rufus K. Noyes, M.D., Views of Religion (Boston: L.K.

Washburn, 1906), 125.

9. Clark Pinnock, “The Destruction of the Finally Impenitent,” Criswell

Theological Review 4 (1990): 246–47, 253, as quoted in Randy Alcorn, Heaven

(Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2004), 24–25.

10. A. W. Tozer, The Formula for a Burning Heart, quoted in Martin H. Manser,

compiler, The Westminster Collection of Christian Quotations (Louisville, KY:

Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 363.

11. See Matthew 7:21–23; 8:12; 10:15, 33; 11:22–24; 12:41–42; 13:30, 40–43,

49–50; 24:50–51; 25:11–12, 29–46.

12. Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest (New York: Dodd, Mead &

Company, 1935), 209.

Copyright 2011 Brian Jones. Hell is Real (But I Hate to Admit It) published by David C Cook.

Publisher permission required to reproduce in any format or quantity. All rights reserved.

The Help: The Book vs.The Movie (Spoilers? Probably.)

15 Aug

The Book

I spent 20 minutes sobbing clinging to my paperback copy of The Help, as if the New York Times bestseller could understand my outpouring of emotion.  Kathryn Stockett’s The Help is that kind of book—the kind of book I want to start re-reading, even though I just finished it, the kind of book that has such lively characters that I want to know them in real life, and the kind of book that makes me think long after I closed the tear-stained pages.

The Help is one of the best books I have ever read.  In fact, it is my favorite literary fiction, and I feel funny saying that because I feel a deep passion for many of the books I read (and music to which I listen), but this book goes beyond my normal realm of “liked it,” past “loved it,” past my “favorite books shelf,” and straight into “life-changing, best books I’ve ever read.”   The Help will find its home amongst my most personal books.

Stockett’s characters are well-developed (even the minor ones)—Skeeter Phelan, the white writer who gathers the stories of the maids, Aibileen, her friend’s black domestic and Aibileen’s friend, Minny, who find maids willing to tell their anonymous stories to Skeeter.  Each of these three characters tells the story of The Help in alternating chapters, adding her distinctive flavor and voice to the story while moving the plot forward.  This story doesn’t shy away from the South’s racial tension in the early 60’s, nor is it an easy read.  Some moments made me laugh out loud, and other times I cuddled with the tissue box, blowing my nose in a most unladylike fashion (Skeeter’s mom would have been appalled.)

Skeeter, Aibileen, Minny, and their friends will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I will revisit their story often, so I don’t forget what is so beautifully written, and then repeated by Kathryn Stockett in the essay she wrote at the close of the book, “Wasn’t that the point of this book? For women to realize, We are just two people.  Not that much separates us.  Not nearly as much as I’d thought.”  This book taught me that the barriers (or “prisons”) we make between “us” and “them” are truly ours to tear down.  And I’m not talking about just racial barriers, but any barrier that keeps “us” in the way of loving “them.”  Like me, you’ll see the line of separation isn’t much, not nearly as much as you once thought.

The Movie

I stuffed a wad of tissues into the purse because after reading the book, I thought the movie would make me cry.  I didn’t use my tissues.  Not even once.  While many people will tell you that “The Help” is the movie of the year, an instant classic, “better than the book” (Gasp!  That *never* happens!), and so forth, let me assure you that I will not be one of those people.

While I adored the book, I thought the movie was just OK.  Not riveting, not a must-see, and not even a great adaptation.

The characters so well-drawn in the book were mere caricatures of Southern women—the white trash chick (Celia), the snotty “mean” girl (Hilly), the world-changer (Skeeter), the docile maid (Aibileen), the loud-mouthed maid (Minny), the reformed meanie (Skeeter’s mother) instead of the characters I have come to know and love (or dislike, in the case of Hilly).  Instead of a messy ending, the movie was tied up in a bright blue bow.

In the book, the stark contrast between the white ladies and their black domestics was apparent, especially against the backdrop of the social unrest and civil rights movement of the early 60’s.  For example, early in the movie Skeeter sits at the same table as Aibileen to talk to the maid about her book idea.  This did not and would not have happened in the book.  Weirder still, later in the movie Minny scolds Celia for sitting at the table with her because “that’s not how white women act.”  The movie treats the writing of the maids’ book as scandalous, but the reality is that such a book could have had deadly consequences for the maids and Skeeter.  Both white and black people were killed in the South for speaking out against segregation and for civil rights. 

Also, the repercussions from the publication of the “Help” book were not felt in the movie.  In the novel, maids were wrongly fired because they were *suspected* of being involved in the project!  And don’t even get me started on the overuse of the chocolate pie…!  The movie was subtle in the places it should have been loud and loud in the places where it should have been subtle.  The complexity of the plot, the relationships, and the underlying element–we are ALL not that different–was lost.

However, the actresses did a great job with what they had.  Bryce Dallas Howard was a perfectly evil Hilly Holbrook, and every ounce the back-stabbing socialite.  Still, Hilly is so mean in the movie, she doesn’t come across as a loving mother or a good friend (I mean, she did hook Skeeter up with her cousin-in-law).  I did enjoy Viola Davis as Aibileen, Octavia Spencer as Minny, and especially appreciated Jessica Chastain’s depiction of Celia Foote.  The cast was lovely; the script was what needed work.  I mean, it didn’t even include my favorite line (and author Kathryn Stockett’s as well) from the book.  What the what?!

I’m going to see the movie with my Bible study this weekend, so I’ll see if I have a different opinion with a little distance between my reading of the book and seeing of the movie.  I really, really wanted to love the movie…and I just didn’t.

Celia (Jessica Chastain) and her new BFF Minny (Octavia Spencer)

And the winner is…The Book.

For another opinion of the movie, check out Jenny B. Jones post, “Yes, I’m Talking About THE HELP, too.”  She LOVED the movie and explains why!

 

What do you think?  Did you like the book or the movie better?  Or did you like them for different reasons? Are books always better than movies?  Or are movies better than books?

Blog Tour & Review: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb by Melanie Benjamin

3 Aug

Melanie Benjamin Banner

Join Melanie Benjamin, author of the historical novel, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb (Delacorte Press, July 26, 2011), as she virtually tours the blogosphere in August on her second virtual book tour with Pump Up Your Book.

About the Book…

In her national bestseller Alice I Have Been, Melanie Benjamin imagined the life of the woman who inspired Alice in Wonderland. Now, in this jubilant new novel, Benjamin shines a dazzling spotlight on another fascinating female figure whose story has never fully been told: a woman who became a nineteenth century icon and inspiration—and whose most daunting limitation became her greatest strength.

“Never would I allow my size to define me. Instead, I would define it.”

She was only two-foot eight-inches tall, but her legend reaches out to us more than a century later. As a child, Mercy Lavinia “Vinnie” Bump was encouraged to live a life hidden away from the public. Instead, she reached out to the immortal impresario P. T. Barnum, married the tiny superstar General Tom Thumb in the wedding of the century, and transformed into the world’s most unexpected celebrity.

Here, in Vinnie’s singular and spirited voice, is her amazing adventure—from a showboat “freak” revue where she endured jeering mobs to her fateful meeting with the two men who would change her life: P. T. Barnum and Charles Stratton, AKA Tom Thumb. Their wedding would captivate the nation, preempt coverage of the Civil War, and usher them into the White House and the company of presidents and queens. But Vinnie’s fame would also endanger the person she prized most: her similarly-sized sister, Minnie, a gentle soul unable to escape the glare of Vinnie’s spotlight.

A barnstorming novel of the Gilded Age, and of a woman’s public triumphs and personal tragedies, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is the irresistible epic of a heroine who conquered the country with a heart as big as her dreams—and whose story will surely win over yours.

About the Author…

Melanie Benjamin is a pseudonym for Melanie Hauser, the author of two contemporary novels. Her first work of historical fiction as Melanie Benjamin was Alice I Have Been. The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb is her second release. She lives in Chicago, where she is at work on her next historical novel.You can visit her online at www.melaniebenjamin.com.

Donna’s Review…

Melanie Benjamin’s new historical novel, The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, features the inspiring story of a heroic nineteenth century woman, Mercy Lavinia (Vinnie) Warren Bump. Standing only two feet eight inches tall, Vinnie and show man P. T. Barnum, founder of the Ringling Bros.and Barnum & Bailey Circus fabricate an fashionable life.  Vinnie marries another little person, General Tom Thumb, and the couple travels with Barnum around the globe keeping the company of kings, queens and the powerful tycoons of that time.

Benjamin develops the story with careful attention to historic detail and the apparent difficulties of the life of a little, but determined, woman. I was so taken with Vinnie’s story that I conducted online research about Vinnie, Tom Thumb, and P.T. Barnum to verify historical details.  While this book is fictional, it is an accurate account of Vinnie’s inspirational life. Benjamin brought a little known woman to the world’s attention in The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb. I heartily recommend this book.–Reviewed by Donna Landis, special to Backseat Writer.

Remember to visit Pump Up Your Book! to read the first chapter of The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb.

*With thanks to Pump Up Your Book!, Melanie Benjamin, and Delacorte Press for the review copy of this book.*

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