Ralph, a family friend since before I was born, sent me an excerpt from a book he’s reading called The Art of Pastoring by David Hansen. He knows a lot of my story, particularly the part of the story that we’ve been living for the past six months or so. Between Zeke’s epilepsy/autism, losing our church, and then losing my job, our family has really been through the meat grinder. I have often been left scratching my head, wondering where, exactly, God has gone to. Had I done something wrong? Had I veered off course while he kept going? Had I unknowingly broken his will and sinned? I didn’t think so. But I still had no explanation for why I felt so Godforsaken.

Then Ralph sent me this excerpt. It has been a long time since I have so deeply resonated with something.

To understand Godforsakenness we must rehearse briefly what has been said [earlier in the chapter] about call. Initially we hear God calling us to ministry, and we make covenant with him to follow the trail toward pastoral ministry. We undergo a process of preparation, sometimes rigorous and difficult. In it we learn to listen to Scripture, to listen to a person and to listen to God. At ordination the church formally recognizes our call and blesses us with the power of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands. We begin our ministry, and we encounter many things. We work hard and have some successes and some failures. We find through difficult experiences that we have been made for this work. Our hearts are filled with compassion for people, love for the gospel and endurance for the painful parts of the job. We feel God at work in us.

Then one day, for unknown reasons, God just isn’t there anymore. The Presence that has guided and strengthened is gone. Our covenant with God feels broken and void. The Scriptures stop comforting. Every page condemns! We continue to read out of obedience, but the Word becomes the letter that kills.

Pastoral skills become worthless.

The church is no longer a warm, nurturing environment where friends gather. The church expels us from the secure womb. Evil rages against us. The boundaries of the church are not walls keeping evil out but a boxing ring keeping evil in, so that it can come back and strike us again and again and again. We can’t run.

I’m up a tree. High, far out on a fragile limb I cling. I climbed out there because God said that he wanted me there and that he would be with me. Now the limb is cracking off the trunk. God isn’t there anymore.

The picture changes like a dream. I am not out on a limb, but strapped to a tree. I am hanging from a tree. I am dying on a tree.

Pinched in God’s vise [an image he used while discussing how to make flies for fly-fishing], dangling helpless, I am made into the bait of God. But for whom?

Nobody pretty wants me now. The world wants winners. Nothing succeeds like success. Look good to attract the good-looking. Die to attract the dying. Suffer to know the being of suffering. Cry out to know Jesus’ crying out. Hear the blood of the innocents screaming; searing pain rises from blood-soaked dirt.

Only now am I a parable of Jesus Christ. [He said earlier that Jesus is a parable of God–that just as parables describe something visible so that we can understand something invisible, so Jesus becomes a parable of God. But then we become parables of Jesus, showing others what’s invisible (Jesus) in our own visible lives/stories.]

Jesus cried out, on the cross, “Eli! Eli! lema sabachthani!” This means, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me,” and is a direct quote of Psalm 22. I don’t think he was just quoting Scripture for fun, or to fulfill prophecy. I believe that Jesus cried out in guttural anguish, and the first words that came to his mind were the first words of this dark psalm. The Son of God was Godforsaken in his most desperate hour.

If I am to become like Jesus, then doesn’t it follow that I must also become Godforsaken? If Jesus was the visible description of the invisible God (a living parable), and now is invisible himself, then that leaves it to us to become parables of Jesus. We must become the visible descriptions of the invisible Lord, and in order to fully incarnate this reality, we must suffer. We must, like Jesus, become Godforsaken.

God forsakes us, not because we’ve sinned or left his will, but precisely as an act of his will, in order to bring us into fuller empathy for and identification with his son. It is for this reason that we must learn to embrace our exile, to press into the Godforsaken present in which we find ourselves in these dark days. There is no use in trying to get things back to where they were before. The important thing is to face the current reality with courage and faithfulness, so that we can say to Jesus on that day, insofar as such a thing is possible, “I understand.”

For more thoughts on this topic, check out the post A Suffering Participation.

Antony Flew was a leading philosopher and atheist of the mid to late twentieth century. He taught at several distinguished schools, including Oxford, Aberdeen, and Reading. He also taught at Bowling Green State Universtiy, near my hometown of Toledo, Ohio. He passed away in April of this year.

In There is a God, Flew lays out his journey from atheism to deism, briefly sketching each of the arguments that influenced the evolution of his thought. Because I am not a philosopher, I will not attempt to summarize those arguments here. The book itself is short enough (less than 220 pages) and colloquial enough to not be overwhelming. Many of us may need a Philosophical Dictionary nearby to understand some of the terms, but most folks can easily follow the arc of the story.

antony_flewThe book is a narrative rather than a philosophical treatise, and it tells the story of Flew’s life as it pertains to the issue of the question of God. He tells tales of his many interactions with Christian and Theist philosophers in debates and dialogues. While there was no singular moment of illumination, it was the cumulative effect of these interactions which brought him to his “conversion.” (I put conversion in quotes because he did not become a Christian, so far as I know. He simply came to believe in a “divine Mind”.)

The “conversion” sent a shockwave through the philosophical and atheistic communities. Flew was a pillar of atheism, one of the greatest minds and most ardent defenders of the “faith”. His admission of the existence of a divine Mind was too much for some to bear. There were accusations that the co-author, Roy Abraham Varghese, manipulated Flew, by then an old man, into publishing this book. While Flew admitted that Varghese did the actual writing, he asserted that the thoughts were his. In the years leading up to his death, Flew publicly declared, again and again, that he had become a deist (and denied becoming a Christian or a Theist).

The guiding principle of Flew’s life, and the through line of this book, is the Aristotelian line, “follow the argument wherever it leads.” It was his commitment to this ideal that ultimately led him out of atheism and into belief in a divine Mind. The primary evidence, as laid out in his book, is the complexity of DNA and the lack of a naturalistic explanation for the evolution of reproductive capability. These issues led him to belief in a divine Mind, which of course is not all the way to the Christian Creator God, but is a large leap of faith for an atheist of his stature.

The book includes two appendices, one by Varghese and the other by N.T. Wright. While Flew was “converted” to the concept of a divine Mind, he did not believe in divine revelation, though he was open to being convinced. Of all the religions claiming divine revelation, he thought Christianity to be the only one worth noting.

“I think that the Christian religion is the one religion that most clearly deserves to be honored and respected whether or not its claim to be a divine revelation is true. There is nothing like the combination of a charismatic figure like Jesus and a first-class intellectual like St. Paul. …If you’re wanting Omnipotence to set up a religion, this is the one to beat.” (185-6)

Wright’s contribution is a brief but potent sketch of his defense for the existence of Jesus, his divinity, and the historicity of the resurrection. This alone is worth the price of the book, and if you’ve never read Wright (what are you waiting for?!), will give you a solid introduction to his three large volumes on Jesus.

I don’t know where Antony Flew stood on the issues Wright raised when he died in April. There’s something oddly refreshing, for me at least, that his book was about his conversion to deism and not to evangelical Christianity. It seems more honest that way, I guess. But of course I hope that he came to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God, and to receive the forgiveness offered him from the cross.

Questions: How does the “conversion” of a notorious atheist strengthen your faith? What are the most important philosophical questions regarding the existence of God? What are the most important pieces of scientific evidence in this debate?

In the olden days (when I was an intolerant fundamentalist) I would never have read Bernhard Anderson’s book, The Unfolding Drama of the Bible. I would have dropped the book against a wall (funny how certain books are capable of defying gravity that way) at the first mention of Second Isaiah. But I’ve mellowed…a bit.

9780800635602What I appreciated about Anderson’s book is the brief, yet thorough, sketch of the Bible. I did this a while ago with my post on Metanarrative, so I appreciate Anderson’s approach of using biblical highlights as case studies to unfold the plot of the Bible. Each chapter has discussion questions at the end which are excellent conversation starters. It is a short read and would be profitable for small groups.

Reading this book has opened my eyes to the way that I can fundamentally agree with someone who comes from a more liberal perspective. Everything he writes about the Bible I agree with, but I don’t share his views on issues of authorship and dating. I’m learning to be more charitable with these issues, and reading this book was an exercise in growth as much as in learning about the Bible.

There is one little bit, however, that I can’t not mention. On several occasions, Anderson makes a comment along the lines of, “Don’t let the literal details of the passage trip you up.” I think what he means by this is, “Don’t let the silly or offensive parts of the story cause you to disregard the passage.” While I understand why he would write this, there seems to be a subtle undercurrent of condescension toward the text, as though we stand over it and judge it against our modern knowledge and sensibilities. What worries me is that this subtle condescension feeds our pride in our own particular historical moment, and that great beast of pride, when fully grown, will seek to conquer the text rather than be conquered by it. In my opinion, it’s far better to approach Scripture with a humble heart and a submissive spirit. The Bible is, after all, our authority, and not the other way around.

Full disclosure: I’ve never believed in the rapture. It’s nowhere to be found in the Scriptures, and the very idea of all true believers being snatched away doesn’t make any sense. How does that gel with the rest of the Bible? When the going gets tough, God just pulls you out of the world. Huh?

Barbara Rossing’s book “The Rapture Exposed” is a passionate and well-informed refutation of the dispensational, rapture-oriented theology of popular American fundamentalism as seen in the Left Behind fictional adventure series. Dr. Rossing begins her book by artfully laying out the case for the destructive nature of rapture/escapist theology. The unbiblical axiom “It doesn’t matter since it will all burn someday” is the grounds for committing deep sin against the world, and Dr. Rossing rails against the escapist worldview that fosters this thinking.

rapture-exposedPerhaps the most useful chapter of the book is the second, in which Dr. Rossing recounts the development of the Rapture from the vision of Margaret MacDonald in 1830, to its popularization by John Darby, and its cementation in the American theological landscape by Cyrus Scofield in the Scofield Reference Bible. She goes on to simultaneously delinieate and debunk the foundations of rapture theology through the proof-texting of various passages in Daniel, Revelation, and other New Testament books.

After the first two chapters, Dr. Rossing presents her own interpretation of the book of Revelation, the cornerstone of which is Lamb Power—that is, the victory of the nonviolence of the Lamb Who Stands But Was Slain over the conquesting and Nike-worshipping violence of the power of Rome. The book of Revelation, she says, is not about the violence of a vengeful Lion Messiah coating the world in the blood of the heathens, but rather about the hope found in the resurrection of the Lamb from the dead. “Lamb theology is the whole message of Revelation. Evil is defeated not by overwhelming force or violence but by the Lamb’s suffering love on the cross. The victim becomes the victor.” (111)

Dr. Rossing goes on to issue a stern warning against the Christianist Zionism she sees embedded with rapture and dispensational theology. She warns against the blind support by many fundamentalist Christians of the secular nation of Israel, especially in regards to the occupation and settlement of traditionally Palestinian lands. Because dispensationalists see the re-establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948 as a “super-sign” that the end is nigh, these fundamentalist Christians will (and have) sought to shape American foreign policy in a way that fully supports Israel and, in their minds, speeds the timeline of events that must occur before Jesus returns. But, Rossing warns, there are real people who are real casualties of the pursuit of this policy, namely Palestinians, and Palestinian Christians in particular. “Whenever people invoke biblical prophets to support a program of violence or injustice,” she writes, “this is a misuse of the Bible. This is extremism.” (73)

This extremism is manifested through a strange, violent obsession with and pursuit of Armagaddon, which dispensationalists see as absolutely central to the prophecies of Revelation. But instead of Armageddon, Rossing posits that Christians should see the Tree of Life and the healing it offers as the central image of the Apocalypse.

Rossing’s book does more than just challenge the unbiblical and heretical rapture theology, it offers an alternative vision and interpretation of the book of Revelation. She debunks the myth of the Rapture, and provides a sound exegesis for those “rapture-passages” that form the backbone of the escapist theology. She goes on to offer an alternative story, not one dripping in the blood and vengeful violence of the Left Behind series, but rooted in the healing and hopeful reality of the Tree of Life which flows from the throne of the Lamb. There is hope for the nations because the Lamb Who Stands But Was Slain, not the Wrathful Lion, wields the power of the throne of heaven. Lamb Power, not Tribulation Force, will have the final say, and all true believers will be right here, with feet firmly planted on the ground, to see it happen.

What do you think of this alternative vision of the Apocalypse? Will there be a Rapture? Will things be as peaceful and healing as Rossing hopes and writes that they will be? Perhaps more importantly, what role should eschatology play in the formation of public policy?

With the possible exception of the story of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son is probably the most famous of Jesus’s parables. You’ve heard it before. No doubt you’ve read it. You’ve even heard it preached on at church. If there’s anything in the New Testament that you’ve got down by now, it’s the story of the Prodigal Son. It is absolutely certain that what Jesus means by that parable is that no matter what we do, no matter how far we run, we can always come back to God.

While that’s true, that’s not all that the parable is about. It goes, in fact, much, much deeper. To discover that meaning, may I recommend to you Tim Keller’s excellent book, The Prodigal God. You will never read the parable the same way again.

Prodigal-GodThe key, Keller argues, is to recognize that there are two sons in the story, and both are lost. In fact, the younger brother may have captured the attention of the evangelical mind, but the story is really about the elder brother. It was originally told, after all, to a group of elder brothers called the Pharisees. The younger brother is lost because of his sin, but the elder brother is lost because of his righteousness.

Huh? How can that be? It is because the elder brother tried to manipulate and control his father by obeying all of the rules. “It is not his sins that create the barrier between [the elder brother] and his father, it’s the pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that keeps him from sharing in the feast of his father.” Like the younger brother, the elder brother never truly cared about his father; he only cared about the estate. While the younger brother was audacious enough to demand it, the elder brother quietly resented his father’s presence whilst working slavishly to keep him happy. For elder brothers, “the good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment.”

Where Keller goes from here will absolutely astound you, and no doubt leave that impression on your spirit that, at last, this parable makes complete sense! This book will be a valuable resource not only for understanding the parable of the Prodigal Son, but also of discovering how to rightly relate to God.