Make no mistake about it; I am a huge nerd. I got a small book order in the mail yesterday, and I am so excited to dive into these books! Check them out:

The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight is one of the books I’ve been waiting to get my hands on for a while. Though it did come out this year, I wasn’t able to pick up a copy right away. But now that I have it, I’m very much looking forward to reading it. McKnight is, for me, a breath of fresh air. So much of contemporary evangelicalism has been bifurcating between the emergent church (Brian McLaren, Tony Jones, Chris Seay, and you could throw Rob Bell in there as well) and the neo-reformed movement (Mark Driscoll, Francis Chan, David Platt, with John Piper playing the role of the Godfather). I don’t identify with either of those groups–the former because they seem to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and the latter because they’ve made the tub so small the baby doesn’t fit in it anymore. While I don’t agree with all of McKnight’s views either (for example, I’m not a pacifist), I find that he is a reasonable voice of Arminian centrism within American evangelicalism, and perhaps the only one. All of the popular-level, American evangelical pastor-theologians seem to be coming from a Calvinist perspective. I’m beginning to feel like an evangelical without a place in American evangelicalism, and I’m curious to see what will happen to believers who, like me, reject reformed soteriology. Will there be an evangelicalism for us? This is why I’m so excited to read The King Jesus Gospel.

Ember’s next preaching series will be through the book of Titus. Because I somehow managed to make it through seminary with barely a commentary to my name (thank you, Gordon-Conwell library!), I try to purchase the best commentary for each book and rely on the work of that scholar. Towner’s commentary on the Pastoral Epistles comes highly recommended from several sources, and is a part of an important commentary series, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, which is edited by the brilliant Gordon Fee.

When I get a commentary, I try to find one that’s been written recently. This is not because I’m a cultural snob (though I probably am), but because the newer commentaries, at least the good ones, will deal with the most important, relevant, and best material from the older commentaries. Biblical studies is a field that has developed and changed over time, and methods of interpretation have evolved since the Bible was first written. A good commentator will give you the best thoughts of those who have written before him, as well as adding the best of his own research and thinking.

I am a huge, huge fan of N.T. Wright. His books, particularly The New Testament and the People of God, Jesus and the Victory of God, The Challenge of Jesus, and What Saint Paul Really Said (as well as his more popular level works like Simply Christian, Surprised by Hope, and After You Believe) have dramatically changed the way I think about and live out my faith. For so long I had been hoping that he would put out a translation of the Bible, and here it is! I’m so looking forward to adding The Kingdom New Testament to my devotional reading, as well as to my study, particularly for the upcoming Titus series at Ember. I’ve had a chance to briefly scan through his translation, as well as read the introduction, and I think it’s going to be very good. I’m particularly interested in reading his translation of Romans, because he once quipped that if you’ve only read Romans in the NIV, then you’ve never really read Romans. I have been reading the new NIV this year in my reading plan, but that’s already taken me all the way through the New Testament, so I’m going to substitute The Kingdom New Testament on the second go around.

And then there’s this last book, Simply Jesus. It’s also by N.T. Wright, and I don’t know anything about it. I had no idea he was writing about Jesus again; but I suppose this could also just be an updated version of The Challenge of Jesus. Whatever it is, I’m very excited to dive into it, as I’m sure that anything Wright writes on Jesus won’t disappoint.

I don’t know what kind of a value you place on reading, but I can honestly tell you that I would not be where I am, who I am, or doing what I’m doing right now if it weren’t for the books I have read in the past decade. Reading is my primary form of learning. I take in information, process it internally or here on the blog, and then it slowly integrates its way into my life, forming me and shaping me. I believe this process is taking place under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and it is a part of what he is doing in and through me to conform me into the image of the Son of God. Not only that, but as the pastor of a church, I take it as my responsibility to engage with serious thinking regarding Scripture, Theology, and Doctrine on behalf of the congregation, and then to translate that information in such a way that it works into their hearts as it has worked into mine. That is part of what I try to do in my preaching, and also, in a freer way, here at the blog.

Before I can get to these books, I have to finish King’s Cross by Tim Keller, which is also an excellent read. I hope to get back into the habit of doing book reviews here. Lord knows I’ve got plenty of good material to work with!

Way back in the day, I used to make mix tapes when I was a kid. I would put together a list of all my favorite songs and painstakingly record them to a cassette tape. That’s right, a cassette tape. I even went so far as to design cover art for the tapes. Don’t hate.

God is Great, God is Good (edited by William Lane Craig & Chad Meister) is kind of like a mix tape. It’s a collection of essays from many of today’s leading evangelical scholars, including Alister McGrath, Scot McKnight, Gary Habermas, John Polkinghorne, and others. The book is like a mix tape in that it gets the best that these authors have to offer, each writing within their respective sweet spots. (Wow, talk about mixing my metaphors!)

9781844744176The subtitle of the book is, “Why Believing in God Is Reasonable and Responsible”. This is a book of apologetics written in response to the New Atheists—Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, et al. William Lane Craig opens the book by lobbing an attack against Dawkins’s arguments that God cannot exist, and the rest of the authors follow suit with short, succinct apologies for various elements of Christian faith.

Due to the nature of the book, most of the chapters are too short to present a sustained argument. This is the sort of work that hits the highlights, and then points you to further resources for more detailed information. This approach is perhaps most useful for Christians who have occasional interactions with skeptics because it will provide them with basic answers to some of the questions that have been made popular by the writings of the New Atheists. While not making any comment on the quality of the work, I would call this a primer on apologetics, not a textbook.

Some of the most rewarding material comes at the end, where the reader will find an interview between Gary Habermas and noted atheist-become-theist scholar Antony Flew. Flew was one of the most influential atheist voices in the world in the last half of the twentieth century, and his conversion to theism in 2004 caused quite a scandal. While, to my knowledge, he never became a Christian before his death in April, his “leap of faith” was certainly a dramatic and powerful conversion.

Also at the end of the book is an Appendix written by Alvin Plantinga, where he reviews Dawkins’s book “The God Delusion”. If you don’t know who Alvin Plantinga is, you would do well to look him up. Have you ever heard someone say something like, “If God exists, and he is good, why is there evil in the world”? This is often assumed to be an ironclad proof that God does not exist. Well, not anymore, thanks to Alvin Plantinga. I won’t go into details here, but almost no serious philosophers consider the problem of evil to be a legitimate critique of the existence of God.

If you’re interested in apologetics, especially in conversing with people who are influenced by the New Atheists, then you should definitely pick up this book. You’ll find that the arguments of Dawkins, et. al., are really not so devastating as they seem. If you’re really serious about Christian apologetics, then you’ve probably already read everything in this book. No need to pick up the mix tape when you already know the albums.

What’s this? Another review of Love Wins? I suppose if there were one book that didn’t need another review, it’s Love Wins by Rob Bell. But, since I blogged about it all of last week, I thought I should go ahead and give it an official sometimespreacher book review.

The book is written in Rob Bell’s trademark style.

Full.

Of.

Questions.

And.

Whitespace.

(For somebody who’s so concerned about the environment, Rob Bell sure wastes a lot of paper in his books. Ba-zing!)

rob-bell-love-wins-1As I pointed out last week, it’s important to know why Rob Bell is writing this book, and what perspective he is challenging. There are eight beliefs that formulate this perspective, and Love Wins is meant to be a “wrecking ball” that destroys these beliefs. The eight beliefs are:

  1. Heaven is somewhere else.
  2. Hell is somewhere else.
  3. It’s all about eternity.
  4. God is angry with you.
  5. Turn or burn.
  6. The gospel is your “Get Out of Hell Free” card.
  7. God has predestined a select few for heaven, and everyone else goes to hell.
  8. Those who have never heard of Jesus will spend eternity in hell.

While Bell does a good job of deconstructing these beliefs, he fails, in my opinion, to reconstruct a convincingly biblical alternative. He uses some sloppy exegesis to get where he wants to go, and his scholarship does not hold up under inspection. What Bell is saying, however, is well worth saying; unfortunately his style far exceeds his substance. It’s going to be left up to others to flesh out what the Bible says about these matters.

What I appreciated most about the book (and if you’re familiar with Rob Bell, this is nothing new) was his emphasis on the continuity of heaven, hell, and earth. He has long preached that heaven is not simply somewhere you go when you die, but that eternal life starts in this life, and that one day heaven and earth will become one. I’ll Fly Away is his least favorite hymn, and I can only assume that he’s not a rapture guy, either.

What has earned Rob Bell the labels universalist and heretic (and John Piper’s now infamous tweet, “Farewell, Rob Bell”) is his chapter There are Rocks Everywhere. In this chapter, Bell asserts that “Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland” can all get into heaven. How? Through Jesus, but maybe not in ways that we are comfortable or familiar with. He affirms that Jesus is the only way to the Father, but he leaves the door open for many ways to get to Jesus.

Maybe you’ve heard stories of Muslims coming to faith in Christ through dreams and visions. This is the sort of thing Bell is talking about when he says that there are rocks everywhere. Jesus is drawing people to himself by whatever means necessary, and as King of Creation, he is free and able to use any tool in creation to accomplish his purposes. “Jesus is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.” The book ends with a fairly standard evangelical call to faith in Christ now.

While not exactly a wrecking ball, I would say Rob Bell has done a good job of deconstructing the standard, fundamentalist view of judgment and the afterlife. It’s a good book to read to begin a conversation, but it is insufficient to guide you through the Scriptures in an attempt to formulate answers. But perhaps that was Bell’s point all along; he’s always been more interested in questions than answers, and that’s exactly where Rob Bell leaves us with Love Wins: far more questions than answers, far more doubt than certainty.

The most controversial chapter of Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins, is probably chapter 6, There Are Rocks Everywhere. Bell opens the chapter with the story of water gushing from the rock during Exodus, and Paul’s surprising claim in 1 Corinthians 10 that the rock was Christ. If Jesus was the rock, Bell postulates, then what else might Jesus be? In what other strange ways might Jesus be revealing himself to the world? If he can be a rock, he can be anything, anywhere, anytime, right?

This is an important question, which leads Bell to conclude that “Jesus is bigger than any one religion.”

He didn’t come to start a new religion, and he continually disrupted whatever conventions or systems or establishments that existed in his day. He will always transcend whatever cages and labels are created to contain and name him, especially the one called ‘Christianity.’

Fair enough. But how, then does one get to Jesus? That’s the question. Bell affirms that Jesus is the only way to the Father, but that there are many ways to get to Jesus. Referring to Jesus’ famous statement in John 14:6, Bell writes,

What he doesn’t say is how, or when, or in what manner the mechanism functions that gets people to God through him. He doesn’t even state that those coming to the Father through him will even know that they are coming exclusively through him. He simply claims that whatever God is doing in the world to know and redeem and love and restore the world is happening through him.

This is what is getting Rob in trouble with the Reformed movement, I believe. While he affirms that Jesus is the exclusive way to the Father, he leaves the door open for many ways to get to Jesus. Hence the title of the chapter, There Are Rocks Everywhere. It is, what he calls, “an exclusivity on the other side of inclusivity.”

This…insists that Jesus is the way, but holds tightly to the assumption that the all-embracing, saving love of this particular Jesus the Christ will of course include all sorts of unexpected people from across the cultural spectrum.

As soon as the door is opened to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Baptists from Cleveland, many Christians become very uneasy, saying that Jesus doesn’t matter anymore, the cross is irrelevant, it doesn’t matter what you believe, and so forth.

Not true.
Absolutely, unequivocally, unalterably not true.

What Jesus does is declare that he,
and he alone,
is saving everybody.

And then he leaves the door way, way open. Creating all sorts of possibilities. He is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe.

In other words, Jesus can and does use every and any tool in creation to draw people to himself. Experientially, this is true. Many, many Muslims have haunting dreams of Jesus and actually come to Christ that way. Bell tells the story of a guy who came to Jesus when he had a drug-induced experience of God. This sort of stuff happens, and we should be open to it.

However, these experiences are the exception, not the rule. They are not normative. God has called his people to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the earth, and to make disciples of all nations. This is the primary means by which Jesus is drawing people to himself. Does he use other methods? Yes. But just because Jesus can and does use every tool in creation to bring people to faith in himself, doesn’t mean that the Church can take it’s mission of Gospel-proclamation and disciple-making less seriously. In fact, these unusual gosepl-experiences are the means by which Jesus is preparing the way for the Church to fulfill her mission.

Rob Bell believes that Jesus is bigger than Christianity. He’s right.

Rob Bell believes that Jesus can be seen drawing people to himself all over the world in nontraditional ways, like through dreams and drug-induced visions. He’s right.

Many people put these two beliefs together and say Rob Bell is a universalist. But he’s not. He affirms that Jesus is the only way to the Father; but he also affirms that there are many ways to Jesus.

Jesus is as narrow as himself and as wide as the universe. If he can be a rock in the Exodus story, then couldn’t there be rocks everywhere?

It’s easy to be critical of Rob Bell’s latest book, Love Wins. He creates strawman arguments by caricaturing fundamentalist Christians. He has poor, often misleading, exegesis of Scripture. He is far better at deconstruction than reconstruction. But there is much of value here.

What I appreciate most about Bell’s book is his insistence that heaven and hell are not merely places that are somewhere else. Heaven and hell are among us, breaking into our reality in the glorious and the obscene, in the great and small events of life on earth. I think this is right.

C.S. Lewis, and later Tim Keller, made the point that there is something inside each one of us that, if left unchecked, will become hell. If you’ve not read Lewis’s masterpiece The Great Divorce, what are you waiting for? In it, Lewis profoundly presents this hell-from-within, sin left unchecked and overindulged, and its tragic consequences. Heaven and hell are trajectories of our lives here on earth. Those who trust Jesus and seek to love and obey him while in the body will get what they want–Christ himself!–in the life to come. Those who reject Jesus and seek to indulge their wicked desires while in the body will also get what they want–life solely on their terms–in the life to come. (Never mind that that sort of life is what Jesus would call “death”.)

Bell gets it right when he says, “For Jesus, heaven is more real than what we experience now. This is true for the future, when earth and heaven become one, but also for today.” Eternal life starts in this life, when you trust Jesus, swearing allegiance to him as your King. Eternal life is not for somewhere else, it is for here, and then it will be for there when there and here become one. (Oh yeah, that’s right, I just Rob Belled you.)

On the other hand, hell is also here. It is the natural consequence of fallen humanity. People throw out phrases like “hell on earth” for a reason–it’s true. A doctor once told me that heroin is Satan; she was right, heroin is Satan. Sex trafficking is hell. Abortion is hell. Domestic abuse is hell. Slavery is hell. All of these are hell because they are the manifestation of extreme evil on earth.

But here’s the thing. Hell is inside of you. Your evil desires. Your lusts. Your pride. Your rage. The idols you worship. All the great evil of which you are capable.
Hell.
Inside.
You. (Oh man, I just Rob Belled you again! BAM!)

But there’s good news here, too. By faith in Christ, heaven, in the person of the Holy Spirit, is also within you. Heaven is inside you. The Holy Spirit is at the core of your being. Destroying your idols. Changing your desires. Growing your character. Humbling you.
Heaven.
God.
Inside you. (I can’t believe you just let me Rob Bell you for a third time.)

This is the tension of who we are. In our sinful nature, we are bringers of hell-on-earth. In the power of the Holy Spirit and through faith in Christ, we are bringers of heaven-on-earth, heralds of the new King, Jesus Christ. Heaven and hell are within you. In your body. On this earth.
You.
Here.
Where heaven, earth, and hell meet. (pwned! I Rob Belled you four times in this post. Four!)

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