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6 years 7 months ago
I’ve read the books of today’s leading atheists—Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins. I’ve read their books and know all about their reasons for hating Christianity and despising the very idea of God. They’ve all sold millions of books and have all traveled the world with their message that God and His followers are what’s most wrong with the world. But I don’t know that anyone of them ever sounded so irrational and so ignorant as Chris Hedges (and, if you’ve read their books, you’ll know that this is saying something!).

Chris Hedges, a long-time correspondent for The New York Times and apparently a Liberal Christian, hates the Christian right, believing that it is in the midst of waging on America. He has seen this war coming for some time and feels as if he needs to speak out. Though he directs his vitriol at “radical Christians” or the “Religious Right,” he seems to define a radical Christianity as one that really just takes the Bible seriously. He has sympathy for those who regard the Bible as a flawed but useful guide to morality, but none for those who believe it to be a normative standard for life and faith. Radical Christians, the objects of this book, are really all Christians. Nowhere does he make the careful, deliberate and important distinctions that would delineate mindless radicals from rational believers. He just tosses them all together and levels both barrels.

Probably the strangest and most ironic aspect of the book is that Hedges, who lauds reason and fairness, seems willing to constantly violate his own standards. As another reviewer has aptly stated: “Hedges incessantly declares ‘rational, dispassionate, scientific analysis’ his standard for all thought and action yet uses inflammatory, demonizing, unsubstantiated language throughout. I constantly felt like Action T4 was about to be implemented - with Christians heading Hedges’ list of impediments to his Uberliberal Reich.”

Here is a sampling of what the reader will encounter and what he’ll learn in American Fascists:

“Dominionists wait only for a fiscal, social or political crisis, a moment of upheaval in the form of an economic meltdown or another terrorist strike on American soil. to move to reconfigure the political system.”

“The split in America, rather than simply economic, is between those who embrace reason, who function in the real world of cause and effect, and those who, numbed by isolation and despair, now seek meaning in a mythological world of intuition, a world that is no longer reality-based, a world of magic.”

“What is happening in America is revolutionary. A group of religious utopians, with the sympathy and support of tens of millions of Americans, are slowly dismantling democratic institutions to establish a religious tyranny, the springboard to an American fascism.”

“Doubt is a sin. Questioning is a sin. The only proper relationship is submission to those above you, the abandonment of critical thought and the mouthing of religious jargon that is morally charged and instantly identifies believers as part of the same, hermetic community.”

“The hyermasculinity of radical Christian conservatism, which crushes the independence and self-expression of women, is a way for men in the movement to compensate for the curtailing of their own independence, their object obedience to church authorities and the calls for sexual restraint.”

“The danger of creationism is not that it allows followers to retreat into a world of certainty and magic—what it does—but that it allows all facts to be accepted or discarded according to the dictates of a preordained ideology. Creationism removes the follower from the rational, reality-based world.”

“It is the duty of the Christian foot soldiers to bring about the Christian utopia. When it is finished, when all have been stripped of legal and social protection, it will be too late to resist. This is the genius of totalitarian movements. They convince the masses to agitate for their own incarceration.”

“When there is no other place to turn for help other than the world of miracles and magic, mediated by those who grow rich of those who suffer, when fealty to an ideology becomes a litmus test for individual worth, tyranny follows.”

“This movement is bent on our destruction.”

“The radical Christian Right calls for exclusion, cruelty and intolerance in the name of God.”

And so it goes, though thankfully for only 200 pages. The pattern is established early on: half-mad, unsubstantiated ranting and unfair, biased descriptions through the first ninety five percent of the chapter with a summary of what it all means and why it is so dangerous in the final few paragraphs. It’s tiresome, it’s ridiculous, and it’s just so utterly irrational. Like many of today’s foremost atheists, Hedges can say nothing positive about Christianity. It is all, entirely evil, it seems. We’ll claim that Christians desire a return to slavery while ignoring that they paved the way for its abolition. We’ll claim they are all greedy while ignoring the innumerable sacrifices by Christians for the poor and disadvantaged. We’ll ignore all the good they do, and paint them instead with a broad, hyperbolic brush. Reason most not sell books or foster invites to the talk shows.

If you are a Christian I am sure you won’t recognize yourself in the pages of American Fascists. The honest and thoughtful reader will have to admit the same.

6 years 9 months ago

I am certain that there is no other book I’ve been asked to review more times than William P. Young’s The Shack, a book that is currently well within the top-100 best-selling titles at Amazon. The book, it seems, is becoming a hit and especially so among students and among those who are part of the Emergent Church. In the past few weeks many concerned readers have written to ask if I would be willing to read it and to provide a review. Because I am always interested in books that are popular among Christians, I was glad to comply.

The Amazon reader reviews for The Shack are remarkable. With 102 reviews already posted, it is maintaining a five-star rating with fully ninety three of the reviewers awarding five stars. Only two have offered one star. A search of blogs and websites turns up near-unanimous enthusiastic (and almost unbridled) praise for the book. “This book is a life-changer, a transformer.” “[The Shack] has become a favorite book OF ALL TIME.” “I am changed. I pray indelibly. My oh my!” This book, which was released in May but which has already gone into its fourth printing, is making a major impact. It has obviously struck a chord with Christians.

I’ll warn in advance that this review is going to be long. My major focus will be the book’s content though I’ll pause to glance fleetingly at the book’s style as well. Because I’ve received so many questions and because the author covers so much ground in the book (and sometimes in a way that is somewhat unclear) I am going to proceed carefully and with many quotes.

There are two things I would like to note about this type of book—theological fiction. First, because of the limitations of the genre, it is sometimes difficult to really know what an author means by what he says. There is often some question as to what comes from the author and what comes from the characters. The author cannot always adequately explain himself; nor can he provide footnotes or references to Scripture. It can be challenging, then, to turn to the Bible to ensure that what he teaches is true. This makes the task of discernment doubly difficult, for one must first interpret the fiction to understand what is being said and then seek to compare that to the Bible. We will do well to keep this in mind as we proceed.

Second, we must also realize that, because of the emotional impact of reading good fiction, it can be easy to allow it to become manipulative and to allow the emotion of a moment to bypass our ability to discern what is true and what is not. This is another thing the reader must keep in mind. We cannot trust our laughter or our tears but must allow our powers of discernment to be trained to distinguish good from evil (see Hebrews 5:14). Discernment is primarily a Spirit-empowered discipline of the mind rather than an emotional response.

So let’s look at this book together, doing the task God requires of us when he tells us to be men and women of discernment—Christians who heed God’s admonition to “test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.” We’ll simply compare what Young teaches to the Bible.

The Book as a Book

First, a word about the book as it is written. William Young shows himself to be a capable writer, though I would not have believed it through the first couple of chapters. The book began with far too many awkward sentences and awkward sentence constructs (e.g. “One can almost hear a unified sigh rise from the nearby city and surrounding countryside where Nature has intervened to give respite to the weary humans slogging it out within her purview”). But as it went on and as the story took over the book became easier to read. The story itself is interesting enough, though certainly it lacks originality. The last chapter should have been left on the editing room floor and the final paragraph (before the “After Words”) was a ridiculously terse attempt to provide closure to remaining plot lines. But on the whole the book is readable and enjoyable. Never does it become boring, even after long pages of nothing but dialog.

But Young did not write this book for the story. This book is all about the content and about the teaching it contains. The book’s reviews focus not on the quality of the story but on its spiritual or emotional impact. Eugene Peterson grasps this, saying in his glowing endorsement, “When the imagination of a writer and the passion of a theologian cross-fertilize the result is a novel on the order of “The Shack.” This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress” did for his. It’s that good!” Could it really be that good? Is it good enough to warrant positive comparison to the English-language book that has been read more widely than any other save the Bible? Let’s turn to the book’s content and find out.

What Is The Shack?

The Shack revolves around Mack (Mackenzie) Philips. Four years before this story begins, Mack’s young daughter, Missy, was abducted during a family vacation. Though her body was never found, the police did find evidence in an abandoned shack to prove that she had been brutally murdered by a notorious serial killer who preyed on young girls. As the story begins, Mack, who has been living in the shadow of his Great Sadness, receives a strange note that is apparently from God. God invites Mack to return to this shack for a get together. Though uncertain, Mack visits the scene of the crime and there has a weekend-long encounter with God, or, more properly, with the godhead.

What should you do when you come to the door of a house, or cabin in this case, where God might be? Should you knock? Presumably God already knew that Mack was there. Maybe he ought to simply walk in and introduce himself, but that seemed equally absurd. And how should he address him? Should he call him Father, or Almighty One, or perhaps Mr. God, and would it be best if he fell down and worshipped, not that he was really in the mood.

As he tried to establish some inner mental balance, the anger that he thought had so recently died inside him began to emerge. No longer concerned or caring about what to call God and energized by his ire, he walked up to the door. Mack decided to bang loudly and see what happened, but just as he raised his fist to do so, the door flew open, and he was looking directly into the face of a large beaming African-American woman.

This large and oh-so-stereotypical matronly African-American woman is God (or at least an anthropomorphism of God she chose to take on in order to communicate with Mack). Throughout the story she is known as Papa. Near the end, because Mack requires a father figure, she turns into a pony-tailed, grey-haired man, but otherwise God is this woman. Jesus is a young to middle-aged man of Middle-Eastern (i.e. Jewish) descent with a big nose and rather plain looks while the Holy Spirit is played by Sarayu, a small, delicate and eclectic woman of Asian descent. By this point many people will choose to close the book and be done with it. But for the purposes of this review, let’s just assume you are able to get past seeing God and the Holy Spirit portrayed in this way and let’s press on.

There is very little action in The Shack and the bulk of the book is dialog, mostly as the members of the Trinity communicate with Mack, though occasionally we see glimpses into their relationship with one another. The banter between the members of the Trinity, most of which is geared towards helping us understand the love that exists between them, leads to some rather bizarre dialog. Take this as a typical example:

Mack was shocked at the scene in front of him. It appeared that Jesus had dropped a large bowl of some sort of batter or sauce on the floor, and it was everywhere. It must have landed close to Papa because the lower portion of her skirt and bare feet were covered in the gooey mess. All three were laughing so hard that Mack didn’t think they were breathing. Sarayu said something about humans being clumsy and all three started roaring again. Finally, Jesus brushed past Mack and returned a minute later with a large basin of water and towels. Sarayu had already started wiping the goop from the floor and cupboards, but Jesus went straight to Papa and, kneeling at her feet, began to wipe off the front of her clothes. He worked down to her feet and gently lifted one foot at a time, which he directed into the basin where he cleaned and massaged it.

“Ooooh, that feels soooo good!” exclaimed Papa, as she continued her tasks at the counter.

Young covers a wide variety of theological topics in this book, each of which is relevant to the theme of Mack’s suffering and his inability to trust in a God who could let his daughter be treated in such a horrifying way. The author is unafraid to tackle subjects of deep theological import—a courageous thing to do in so difficult a genre as fiction. The reader will find himself diving into deep waters as he reads this book.

Much of what Young writes is good and even helpful (again, assuming that the reader can see past the human personifications of God). He affirms the absolute nature of what is good and teaches that evil exists only in relation to what is good; he challenges the reader to understand that God is inherently good and that we can only truly trust God if we believe Him to be good; he acknowledges the human tendency to create our image of God by looking at human qualities and assuming that God is simply the same but more so; he attempts to portray the loving relationships within the Trinity; and so on. For these areas I am grateful as they provided helpful correctives to many false understandings of God.

But the book also raised several concerns. Young covers many topics and time would fail me to discuss each of them. Instead, I will look at concerns with some of the book’s broader themes and will do so under several theological headings.

The Trinity

Young teaches that the Trinity exists entirely without hierarchy and that any kind of hierarchy is the result of sin. The Trinity, he says, “are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command or ‘great chain of being’… Hierarchy would make no sense among us.” Now it’s possible that he is referring to a kind of dominance or grade or command structure that may well be foreign to the godhead. But a reading of the Bible will prove that hierarchy does, indeed, exist even where there is no sin. After all, the angels exist in a hierarchy and have done so since before the Fall. Also, in heaven there will be degrees of reward and there will be some who are appointed to special positions (such as the Apostles). And the Bible makes it clear that there is some kind of hierarchy even within the Trinity. The Spirit and the Son have submitted themselves to the Father. The task of the Spirit is to lead people to the Son who in turn brings glory to the Father. Never do we find the Father submitting to the Spirit or to the Son. Their hierarchy is perfect—without anger or malice or envy, but it is a hierarchy nonetheless.

There are other teachings about the Trinity that concerned me. For example, Papa says “I am truly human, in Jesus.” This simply cannot be true. God [the Father—a term that the author avoids] is not fully human in Jesus. This melds the two persons of God in a way that is simply unbiblical. Some of what Young teaches is novel and even possible, but without Scriptural support. For example, he teaches that the triune nature of God was an absolute necessity since without it God would be incapable of love. His reasoning is not perfectly clear but seems to be that if God did not have such a relationship “within himself” he would be unable to love. But this is not taught in the Bible.

Overall, I had to conclude that Young has an inadequate and often-unbiblical understanding of the Trinity. While granting that the Trinity is a very difficult topic to understand and one that we cannot know fully, there are several indications that he often blurs the distinct persons of the Trinity along with their roles and their unique attributes. Combined with his novel but unsupported conjectures, this is a serious concern.

Submission

Young uses the discussion about the Trinity as a bridge to a the subject of submission. Here he teaches that each member of the Trinity submits to the other. Jesus says, “That’s the beauty you see in my relationship with Abba and Sarayu. We are indeed submitted to one another and have always been so and will always be. Papa is as much submitted to me as I to him, or Sarayu to me, or Papa to her. Submission is not about authority and it is not obedience; it is all about relationships of love and respect. In fact, we are submitted to you in the same way.” Why would the God of the universe seek to be submitted to mere humans? “Because we want you to join us in our circle of relationship.” Genuine relationships, according to the author, must be marked by mutual submission. “As the crowning glory of Creation, you were made in our image, unencumbered by structure and free to simply ‘be’ in relationship with me and one another. If you had truly learned to regard each other’s concerns as significant as your own, there would be no need for hierarchy.” Submission, according to this book, must be mutual, so that husbands submit to wives while wives submit to husbands, and parents submit to children while children submit to parents. While the Bible does teach that we are to submit to one another, it also teaches that God has ordained some kinds of hierarchy. While a husband is to submit his desires to his wife, even to the point of sacrificing his life for her, he is never called to submit to her in an authoritative sense. Wives, though, are commanded to submit to their husbands, acknowledging that the husband is the head of the family. Similarly, all people are to submit to the God-given authorities and every person is responsible to submit to God.

This understanding of absolute equality not just in value (which the Bible affirms) but also in role and function (which the Bible does not affirm), leads to a strange idea about why God created Eve out of Adam. He teaches that it was crucial for man be created before woman, but with woman hidden inside man. Had this not happened, there could not have been a proper circle of relationship since otherwise man would always come from woman (through childbirth), allowing her to claim a dominant position. She came out of him and now all men come out of her. This allows total, absolute equality, says Young. I can think of absolutely no biblical proof for this and neither does the author offer any.

And so we see that Young uses The Shack to teach an unbiblical understanding of submission. And he uses this topic to bridge to another.

Free Will

Young’s understanding of free will seems to follow from submission. “I don’t want slaves to do my will,” says Jesus. “I want brothers and sisters who will share life with me.” Speaking in veiled terms about conversion or something like it, Jesus says, “We will come and live our life inside of you, so that you begin to see with our eyes, and hear with our ears, and touch with our hands, and think like we do. But, we will never force that union with you. If you want to do your thing, have at it. Time is on our side.” God, it seems, has already forgiven all humans for their sin and has willingly submitted himself to them, though only some people will choose relationship. He is fully reconciled to all human beings and simply waits for them to do their part. Never does Young clearly discuss the consequences that will face those who refuse to accept this offer of union.

Overall, Young presents a God who is unable or unwilling to break into history in any consequential way. He is sovereign at times, but certainly not so in conversion (a topic that receives only scant attention) and is limited by the free will choices of human beings. Scant attention is paid to God’s fore-ordination, the understanding that nothing happens without it somehow being part of His decree (even while God cannot be accused of being the author of evil). Papa explains to Mack, “There was no way to create freedom without a cost.” But nowhere in the Bible do we find that God is somehow made captive by human free will and that He has to allow things to proceed in order to maintain His own integrity as Creator. Always God is sovereign, even over the free will choices of men. Our inability to understand how this can be does not preclude us from the responsibility of believing it.

Forgiveness

Much of the story focuses on forgiveness. Mack has to learn to forgive first God (or at least to come to an intellectual understanding of why God was unable to intervene to save Missy) and then, at the book’s culmination, to forgive the murderer. I am adamantly opposed to the idea that we would ever need to forgive God for anything. However, because this teaching is seen only vaguely in the novel, I will pass over it for now and turn to another area of forgiveness—that of unconditional forgiveness.

Nowhere in Scripture will we find the idea that we can or should forgive an unrepentant person for this kind of crime. Rather, Scripture makes it clear that repentance must precede forgiveness. Without repentance there can be no forgiveness. This is true of God’s offer of forgiveness to us and, as we are to model this in our human relationships, must be true of how we offer forgiveness to others. So when, at the book’s climax, Mack cries out “I forgive you” to the murderer (who is not present and has not sought forgiveness) he cannot offer true forgiveness. Neither can true forgiveness exist where Mack is unable to pursue reconciliation with this man. Forgiveness makes no sense and means nothing if we require it in this way. It may make a person feel better about himself, but it cannot bring about true forgiveness and true reconciliation. And so Young teaches a therapeutic, inadequate and unbiblical understanding of forgiveness.

Scripture and Revelation

There are few doctrines more important to Christian living than this one—understanding how it is that God chooses to communicate with human beings. Though the Bible teaches that Scripture is the “norming norm,” many Christians give precedence to other supposed forms of revelation, and particularly promptings, leadings and “still, small voices.” Sure enough, such an emphasis is seen clearly in The Shack. How will we hear from God in day-to-day life (away from the miraculous shack)? “You will learn to hear my thoughts in yours,” says Sarayu. “Of course you will make mistakes; everybody makes mistakes, but you will begin to better recognize my voice as we continue to grow our relationship.” And where will we find the Spirit? “You might see me in a piece of art, or music, or silence, or through people, or in Creation, or in your joy and sorrow. My ability to communicate is limitless, living and transforming, and it will always be tuned to Papa’s goodness and love. And you will hear and see me in the Bible in fresh ways. Just don’t look for rules and principles; look for relationship—a way of coming to be with us.”

Beyond looking for new revelation, The Shack says little about how God has communicated or will continue to communicate with us in Scripture. There are a couple of times that it mentions the Bible, but never does it point to Scripture as a real authority or as the sufficient Word of God. “In seminary [Mac] had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring to have them only listen to and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted, of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects… Nobody wanted God in a box, just in a book. Especially an expensive one bound in leather with gilt edges, or was that guilt edges?” Here we see Young pointing away from Scripture rather than towards it. Through Mack he scoffs at the idea that God has spoken authoritatively and sufficiently through the Bible. And if he points away from Scripture he points towards subjective promptings and leadings.

Though common, such teaching is dangerous and directly detracts from the sufficiency of Scripture. When we admit that God has not, in the Bible, said all that He needs to say to us, we open the doors for all manner of new revelation, much of which may contradict the Bible. What authority is there if not the Bible? Ultimately the issue of revelation is an issue of authority and too many Christians are willing to trust their own authority over the Bible’s. What authority does Young rely on as he brings teaching here in The Shack? Does he look to a higher authority or does he look mostly to himself? The reader can have no confidence that Young loves and respects God’s Word has He chose to give it to us in Scripture.

Salvation

The book contains surprisingly little teaching about salvation. When Young does discuss conversion, he places it firmly in the camp of relationship but also uses the stereotypical phrases such as “this is not a religion” and “Jesus isn’t a Christian.” Jesus apparently loves all people in exactly the same way, having judged them worthy of his love. Young also wades dangerously close to universalism saying that Jesus has no interest in making people into Christians. Rather, no matter what faith they come from, he wishes to “join them in their transformation into sons and daughters of my Papa.” He denies that all roads lead to him (since most roads lead nowhere) but says instead, “I will travel any road to find you.” Whether Young holds to universalism or not, and whether he believes that all faiths can lead a person to God, the book neither affirms nor refutes.

Conclusion

Many other topics receive less attention but also raise concerns. For example, Jesus comments on religion, politics and economics saying “They are the man-created trinity of errors that ravage the earth and deceives those I care about.” But Young offers no biblical proof that this is something Jesus would teach. In other places God seems to gloss over sin, judging certain sins almost inconsequential. And so it goes.

So where does all of this leave us? It is clear to me that The Shack is a mix of good and bad. Young teaches much that is of value and he teaches it in a slick and effective way. Sadly, though, there is much bad mixed in with the good. As we pursue his major theological thrusts we see that many of them wander away, by varying degrees, from what God tells us in Scripture.

Despite the great amount of poor theology, my greatest concern is probably this one: the book has a quietly subversive quality to it. Young seems set on undermining orthodox Christianity. For example, at one point Mack states that, despite years of seminary and years of being a Christian, most of the things taught to him at the shack have never occurred to him before. Later he says, “I understand what you’re saying. I did that for years after seminary. I had the right answers, sometimes, but I didn’t know you. This weekend, sharing life with you has been far more illuminating than any of those answers.”

Throughout the book there is this kind of subversive strain teaching that new and fresh revelation is much more relevant and important than the kind of knowledge we gain in sermons or seminaries or Scripture. Young’s readers seem to be picking up on this. Read this brief Amazon review as an example: “Wish I could take back all the years in seminary! The years the locusts ate???? Systematic theology was never this good. Shack will be read again and again. With relish. Shared with friends, family, and strangers. I can fly! It’s a gift. ‘Discipleship’ will never be lessons again.” Another reviewer warns that many Christians will find the book difficult to read because of their “modern” mindsets. “If one is coming from a strong, propositional and, perhaps, fundamentalist perspective to the Bible, this book certainly will be threatening.” Still another says “This book was so shocking to my “staid” Christianity but it was eye opening to my own thoughts about who I think God is.” At several points I felt as if the author was encouraging the reader to doubt what they know of Christianity—to deconstruct what they know of Christian theology—and to embrace something new. But the faith Young reconstructs is simply not the faith of the Bible.

Eugene Peterson says this book is as good and as important as The Pilgrim’s Progress. Well, it really is not. It is neither as good nor as original a story and it lacks the theological precision of Bunyan’s work. But really, this is a bit of a facile comparison. The Pilgrim’s Progress, after all, is allegory—a story that has a second distinct meaning that is partially hidden behind its literal meaning. The Shack is not meant to be allegory. Nor can The Shack quite be equated with a story like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe where C.S. Lewis simply asked (and answered) this kind of question: “What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia, and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?” The Shack is in a different category than these more notable Christian works. It seeks to represent the members of the Trinity as they are (or as they could be) and to suggest through them what they might teach were they to appear to us in a similar situation. There is a sense of attempted or perceived reality in this story that is missing in the others. This story is meant to teach theology that Young really believes to be true. The story is a wrapper for the theology. In theory this is well and good; in practice the book is only as good as its theology. And in this case, the theology just is not good enough.

Because of the sheer volume of error and because of the importance of the doctrines reinvented by the author, I would encourage Christians, and especially young Christians, to decline this invitation to meet with God in The Shack. It is not worth reading for the story and certainly not worth reading for the theology.

7 years 1 week ago
There are few things I love to eat more than bread. I just love a good loaf of white bread. I eat it the way many people eat junk food (and, I suppose, one could argue that it is junk food). Not too long ago we bought a bread maker from a person nearby who was selling all his possessions to move back to his native Poland, having found that North American living was not to his liking. The machine worked well for five loaves but on the sixth, while the bread was being kneaded, I heard a strange grinding sound followed by a sharp crack. I opened the machine and saw that the paddle, the piece that beats against the dough, had broken. I removed the lump of dough and decided I could simply put it in a bread pan and bake it on my own. A few minutes later I pulled the loaf from the oven. It looked just perfect—golden brown on top and shaped a whole lot better than the loaves that come out of the bread maker. I eagerly cut into it, looking forward to enjoying a slice of bread. But, to my surprise, I cut into, well, nothing, really. Apparently the dough had not been properly kneaded. The loaf of bread was full of air; it was full of nothing. I had baked a crust.

As I thought about Joel Osteen’s new book, Become a Better You, I was reminded of that sad, pathetic little loaf of bread because this book, like that bread, is form without substance. This is Osteen’s second book, and the follow-up to his bestselling Your Best Life Now. Like the previous title, this one features a picture of the smiling pastor on the front cover and offers seven steps to a better life. Like Your Best Life Now much of the book follows this format: “The way to ______ is not to ______. Instead, you need to ______. You might say, ‘But Joel, I can’t do ______ and ______.’ I know it’s hard. Rise to the challenge. Don’t let yourself get beat up or knocked down. God has so much more for you.” And like his previous book, this one is maddeningly repetitive. It is a handful of his sermonettes for Christianettes expanded into 380 pages of mind-numbing repetition.

The book is divided into seven parts, which together are sure to improve your life every day. “What does it mean to become a better you? First, you must understand that God wants you to become all that He created you to be. Second, it is imperative that you realize that God will do His part, but you must do your part as well.” To become a better you, you must following the seven steps:

  1. Keep pressing forward
  2. Be positive toward yourself
  3. Develop better relationships
  4. Form better habits
  5. Embrace the place where you are
  6. Develop your inner life
  7. Stay passionate about life

Each step is broken into several chapters and each part ends with a series of Action Points intended to give the reader concrete steps to tak to improve his life. It is, frankly, a lot like every other self-help book on the market today, but with one crucial difference—this one is built, supposedly, upon the Bible.

As I closed the cover on this book I began to wonder, What is it that draws people to Joel Osteen? Why do people enjoy his teaching so much? After all, tens of thousands of people attend his church each week and hundreds of thousands more watch him on television. He has become one of America’s most popular pastors, even while he teaches things that most pastors would testify are inconsistent with the Bible.

I think the secret to Osteen’s success is this: he teaches self-help but wraps it in a thin guise of Christian terminology. Thus people believe they are being taught the Bible when the reality is that they are learning mere human wisdom rather than divine wisdom. Osteen cunningly blends the wisdom of this age with language that sounds biblical. He blends the most popular aspects of New Age and self-help teaching with Christianity. And his audience is eagerly drinking this in.

And this raises an important and related question. What is Osteen’s authority? On what authority does he base what he teaches? Christians have long understood that the only authority we have when it comes to spiritual matters is authority given to us by God through the Bible. We are committed to teaching only things that are consistent with God’s revelation of Himself in the Bible. Without the Bible we have no authority. A pastor has no right to stand in front of a congregation and teach people what he believes. Rather, the pastor is to stand in front of the congregation and teaches people what God says about Himself. He bases all he does and says on this standard. In reading Joel Osteen we do not see this manner of authority. In reading Osteen we see a man who appeals to himself and to his own understanding and experience as authority. Rarely does he appeal to the Bible (66 times in 380 pages). Never will the discerning reader feel that Osteen has sought to understand the Bible first. Rather, it seems that he looks to the Bible to prove what he has already written or what he already believes. He uses the Bible, but not as a source of authority.

This is not to say that Osteen has no understanding of Christianity. Become a Better You contains some teaching that seems consistent with the Bible, and certainly there is lots of Christian terminology woven in. But Osteen teaches what is clearly a woefully inadequate theology of sin, repentance, sanctification and life. Osteen seems unable or unwilling to bring the power of the gospel to bear on life—real life. Life, he teaches, is not a meant to bring glory to God, but is meant to bring blessing and ease to the individual. He occasionally shares words that approximate the gospel, but ones that always stop short of providing the complete gospel as we find it in the Bible. “We’ve all sinned, failed, and made mistakes,” he says, “But many people don’t know they can receive God’s mercy and forgiveness.” That sounds fair, but he goes on to say, “As long as you’re doing your best and desire to do what’s right according to God’s Word, you can be assured God is pleased with you.” Is it enough to desire to do what’s right? Is God pleased with those who do their best? “That accusing voice will come to you and tell you, ‘You lost your temper last week in traffic.’ Your attitude should be, ‘That’s okay. I’m growing.’” But sin is never okay, whether we are growing or not. We can never excuse sin and can never minimize it.

My encouragement to those who intend to read this book and to those who enjoy the ministry of Joel Osteen is simply this: examine his authority. If you love Joel Osteen for who he is—a charismatic, smiling, successful, wealthy purveyor of advice—you will appreciate this book. It may change the way you live. But in that end that is all just puff. It’s like bread that is nothing but crust. If you are looking for teaching with true substance and for teaching that can really transform a life and renew a heart, look for a teacher who relies on an authority outside of himself—look for a person who humbly and faithfully teaches the Bible and who brings the wisdom of the Bible to bear on all of life.

7 years 2 months ago
A Review of Max Lucado’s latest book.
It’s a match made in heaven (or that’s what Thomas Nelson Publishers must believe). In 3:16: The Numbers of Hope, one of the world’s best-known and best-loved Christian authors takes on the world’s best-known and best-loved Bible verse. Max Lucado has authored over 50 book with sales exceeding an incredible 50 million copies in print. His books are regularly on the New York Times list of bestsellers and continually dominate the Christian charts (where he has had up to eleven books present at one time). 3:16 is as close as we could expect for a sure-thing bestseller. An unparalleled marketing campaign will all but guarantee it. It is no coincidence that the book will release on 9/11, allowing people to contrast numbers of despair with numbers of hope. The book will also stand as the centerpiece of a major global ministry initiative launching on Palm Sunday, 3/16/08. This book is going to make a splash.

In 3:16 Lucado unpacks (“exposits” would probably not be quite the right word) what he calls the “hope diamond of the Bible,” the verse that is known and cherished by more believers than any other: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Of this passage he says, “If you know nothing of the Bible, start here. If you know everything in the Bible, return here.” Good advice, and advice that immediately shows that this book is written for a dual audience, both those who know the Bible and those who do not; those who love God and those who do not. It is written to show the reader the value of understanding and living in light of the words of John 3:16.

Through twelve logically structured chapters Lucado interacts with this verse, moving easily through each of the major words or word pairings in the text. Lucado is a good writer and one who communicates well, often through story and example. It is little wonder that he has gained such popularity as he does an excellent job of communicating in a way that is bound to appeal to just about any reader. The book concludes with 40 brief readings (adapted from selections from Lucado’s previous books) that are intended as supplementary devotional reading over a 40 day period.

While I rarely employ such a format, I am going to divide this review into two parts, pointing out first what I perceived to be the book’s strengths (beyond those already offered) and then a few of its weaknesses.

Strengths

I was glad to see that Lucado largely gets the gospel right, aptly expressing the work of Jesus and its tragic necessity. He expresses the hopelessness of man without God and the fact that rebirth, like birth, is a passive act to which we contribute nothing. He emphasizes the exclusivity of Christ against all other religious claimants, unashamedly declaring that Christ is the only way to the Father. He is clear that some people are saved and some are not and in consequence he writes about the joys of heaven and the horrors of hell, never attempting to apologize for the existence or utter hopelessness of hell. He is refreshingly old fashioned in much of his theology.

This leads to a related point, that Lucado is not afraid to discuss theology that is too often regarded as outmoded today. As already mentioned, he writes about the reality of hell and about Jesus’ claim to be the only Savior. He writes also about the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ work—that He took our sin upon Himself and received in Himself the punishment due to sinners—and of the reality of those who are sinners. “Bad news…” he writes after looking at a few of the Ten Commandments, “Your test score indicts you as a thieving, lying, adulterous murderer.”

Lucado often turns to good and trusted sources in his footnotes. Perusing the footnotes I noted references to James Boice, Donald Barnhouse, James White, John Blanchard, Randy Alcorn and other sources of sound theological wisdom. Though he often refers to these authors more for stories and anecdotes than theology, it is heartening to see him seeking to learn from such trusted, biblically-minded authors.

Weaknesses

Lucado writes of God’s promises and often does so without distinction between those who know God and those who do not. This is doubtlessly a consequence of writing for a dual audience. He uses Bible verses that are clearly written to Christians but does not make that distinction. This is true not only in the words of John 3:16 (does God love everybody in the world without exception or everybody in the world without distinction?) but in other passages as well. This kind of talk can be dangerous—it can have consequences. To assure readers that they qualify as beneficiaries of God’s promises whether they know Him or not can cause a great deal of confusion. While Lucado is very clear that Jesus is clear that there are those who are saved and those who are not, it is strange that he does not better delineate who certain promises are for.

There are aspects of Lucado’s theology that are suspect when I compare it to the Bible and to the broad stream of historic Protestant theology. In broad terms, his theology seems to downplay the sovereignty of God in favor of the free will of man. So while humans are sinful, he seems to say, they are not so sinful that without a prior work of God they will never turn to Him. As Lucado explains it, God waits for us to turn to Him, never infringing upon our free will, even saying “God, eternally gracious, never forces his will.” Yet this introduces the complication that dead men, men who have perished spiritually, have no good desires and dead men can never be initiators. If we are dead, God must make the first move, even if this involves forcing His will.

I felt there were a few places in the text where it may have been wise to exercise just a little more precision or where the author was just plain inaccurate. For example, Lucado speaks of Jesus going to hell—a common belief but one that seems to owe more to the Apostle’s Creed than to the Bible. He also states that, because of the fact that the Father and Son are both God, in God giving His Son, God gave Himself. I know what Lucado is attempting to communicate, but it could definitely be said better and in a way that would not breed confusion, especially among those who have little prior theological background.

Lucado employs at least twelve translations of the Bible. I realize that in a format like this there may not be opportunity to explore the meaning of a text and thus it is sometimes most convenient to simply turn to a translation that says things in the way the author feels they can best be said. But often I found the translation used was not the most accurate one and this is especially true when Lucado turns to The Message. A couple of the passages he quoted from that paraphrase bore only a vague resemblance to a more accurate translation.

Conclusion

Those concerns aside, I feel that 3:16 is quite a strong effort and one God is sure to use despite its imperfections. While perhaps not a book I would choose to hand to a person interested in exploring Christianity, I can say with some confidence that it is also not a book that will lead people far astray. Lucado presents the good news of Jesus Christ’s atoning death and does so in an attractive way. The millions who are sure to read this book will come face-to-face with one of Scripture’s most powerful statements and through it will come face-to-face with the Savior. Though it does not present the whole story, 3:16 will certainly have a lot of value as a means of stirring hearts and beginning spiritual conversations. With marketing efforts focusing, at least in part, on airports, keep an eye out for people reading this one when you travel. The words of John 3:16 have brought many souls to the Savior; I trust and hope this book will serve to help bring many more.

7 years 2 months ago

A review of Brian “Head” Welch’s Bestselling Autobiography.

Claims of celebrity conversions to Christianity are quite common, but so often it seems that the conversions are followed by no lifestyle changes, the most common external proof of a true heart change. So often we hear of the conversions and then see no convincing reason that the person has truly come to know the Lord. Brian “Head” Welch is one of the few celebrities I can think of who claimed Christ and immediately followed this profession with profound changes to his life. Welch was a founding member of the “nu metal” band Korn which has sold over 30 million albums and garnered 6 Grammy nominations (with 2 wins). Despite the fame, fortune and glory that were his, after becoming a Christian, Welch almost immediately left the band and the rock and roll lifestyle. We knew a book was going to follow his conversion and sure enough Save Me From Myself is his story told “to encourage you to seek after a deep and intimate relationship with God.”

Save Me From Myself is published by HarperOne, a mainstream publisher, and for good reason—I don’t think most Christian publishers would go near this book! It is a frank and dark look into Welch’s past. He describes in vivid detail the lifestyle he chose to leave behind. He writes about his hopeless addictions to alcohol, methamphetamines and other narcotics. He writes about what it was like be part of the tour bus mayhem in the Ozzfest and The Family Value tours. He discusses the utter depravity that is the lifestyle of this heavy metal rockers. While he stops short of discussing specific sexual encounters, the rest of the lifestyle is laid bare in this book. Though we all know the kind of lives these rockers lead, it is still shocking and sickening to hear the first-hand accounts.

After leaving the band, Welch shared a much-publicized testimony in the church he attended at the time and immediately departed on a tour of the holy land. He was followed by the media, even while being baptized in the Jordan River. While he is now largely outside of the public eye, the world continues to watch and observe, seeing if his claims will be borne out by time. This book offers a fascinating glimpse into his life before, during and after his conversion.

While I do not wish to cast doubt on the sincerity and validity of Welch’s profession of faith and while I do not wish to create a list of all the things he says that I feel are unbiblical, the book did raise several concerns which are significant enough that they impact whether or not I would be comfortable recommending this book to others. I’m sure many people will consider this as a book to hand to a young person and it is worth considering whether it is appropriate to encourage young believers or to evangelize young unbelievers. I’d like to point out a few of the concerns I have with it.

First, and by way of showing how his understanding of theology is still in its infancy, Welch’s discussion of his baptism leads me to believe that he has a lot of trouble understanding what the Bible says about baptism and what it accomplished in his life. His understanding, at least as I could discern it from the book, is more akin to baptismal regeneration than to a biblical view. While we would expect his faith to still be immature since he has been a believer for only a couple of years, some of his statements about baptism and other areas of theology do give cause for concern. He also dedicates an entire chapter to the gift of tongues, speaking of how he was taught to pray in his own prayer language, something he does for up to three hours each day. Summarizing his perspective he writes the following strange view:

Here is my opinion on speaking in tongues: If you want to have the most faith you can have on this earth, learn to pray in tongues. If you find it too weird and you prefer to live a good, quiet Christian life, don’t pray in tongues. It’s just that simple. It all comes down to personal choice, just like everything else in life. God will love you the same whether you pray in tongues or not.

Second, Welch advocates the possibility that a Christian can remove himself from the rest of the visible church. He writes about how his celebrity status made him feel like the mascot at his church and that the Lord led him out of that church and, in fact, out of churches in general, at least for a while. “It was time for me to go into seclusion so I could learn what God wanted me to learn.” There is no indication that he has begun to attend church since then. While I understand that it must be difficult for him to attend a church without becoming the center of too much attention, leaving church altogether is never the sign of a healthy faith. God expects us to learn what He wants us to learn through the church, not independent of it.

Third, as the book reaches its conclusion, I could see that Welch has been led into a mystical kind of faith that depends on dreams, visions and all kinds of forms of revelation outside of Scripture. This is unfortunate, for these forms are clearly leading him away from the Bible as the means God speaks to us authoritatively. At a time when too many who claim Christ are turning away from the Bible, this mystical view has the potential to draw people even further from the One they claim to love.

Fourth, speaking of established religion he enters into a strange, rambling, almost embarrassing rant:

This song [“It’s Time To See Religion Die,” the title track for his forthcoming album] is for all the people that have been hurt by religion. All of the man-made religion crap in this world has to die. Whether it’s Christian man-made religion crap or some other man-made religion crap, it all has to die. It must grieve God’s heart when he sees Christians fighting about whose doctrine is right; he doesn’t see denominations, he sees on big glorious bride. When Christians argue about doctrinal issues, all he sees is carnal people acting like children. All that prideful, controlling religious crap is what drives young people away from churches, and it has to go.

Such a statement is inane, not merely for the gratuitous and near-meaningless use of the word “crap” but for its naivite. This view may represent what some Christians believe, but it is in no way helpful or useful in contributing to a solution to Christian in-fighting. It inadvertently paints Christians and all of Christianity in a negative light.

Finally, readers should be warned that the book contains quite a lot of profanity (many uses of hell, damn, the f-bomb, etc), some of it in quotations from his past, and some of it simply interspersed in the narrative. Welch indicates that God is helping him clean up his language and acknowledges that such language does not bring glory to Him, so it seems strange that he would commit such profanity to the pages of the book. His use of such words is a tacit denial that profanity really is a serious issue.

Again, my purpose here is not to point out all the things that are wrong with this book. Rather, it is to suggest that this may not be the best book to hand to that rebellious rocker nephew in your life this Christmas. Though Welch’s testimony is powerful, he is clearly a young and immature Christian and one who has escaped a particularly depraved lifestyle. God seems to have done a great work in his life, but there is much work to do (as there is in all of us). At this point I don’t think I could recommend Welch as any kind of leader or mentor in the church simply because his enthusiasm seems to far outstrip his knowledge and sanctification. It is for good reason that the Bible sets Christian maturity as a prerequisite to leadership.

All of this is not to say the book is without value. Already I’ve read several reviews of the book and have seen that it has caused readers to look a little deeper at their rock and roll idols to see what kind of lives they are leading. This book will certainly give people reason to pause and consider their heroes. I’m sure it will also give hope to those who are struggling with addiction and allow them to see that they can overcome it by pleading for help from the Lord. And I know it will be widely read by Brian’s fan base, most of whom have probably never heard any story of the saving power of Jesus Christ. And God is certainly capable of working even through imperfect means such as this book.

Individual readers will have to decide if they can deal with reading the story of Welch’s life before his conversion. It is not easy to read about the drugs, alcohol, abuse and sexuality that pervaded his life and the lives of his band mates. Yet this was his life and he chose not to hide it. I was never left with the impression that he was providing details simply to be shocking or because he still reveled in them. He simply related his life as he lived it for so many years.

I rejoice that God was pleased to extend His amazing grace to Brian Welch. I trust that God is continuing to work in His life. It is my hope and prayer, that God will lead godly mentors to him, men that can encourage and support him, and yet challenge him where he needs to be challenged. I hope these men can help him see that he needs to break his dependence on extra-biblical forms of revelation and turn instead to the Word. I hope they can lead him to greater Christian maturity and a more accurate, more biblical understanding of the faith. And despite imperfection I trust that God can and will use Welch’s testimony for His glory.

7 years 3 months ago

The atheistic literary pantheon is currently comprised of three men: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. All three men have written bestselling books and all three have published their most recent efforts in the past year. While I have no reason to believe that they have planned their books to coincide thematically or chronologically, their books do resemble each other in several ways. All three men believe that religion is a blight on society and all of them choose to deal most specifically with the evils of Christianity and its adherents. All three believe that religion harms far more than it hurts and all of them are angry and unwilling to be silent about all of this. Of these three, Dawkins is the most influential and we can rightly say that he is currently the most prominent atheist in the world.

Sam Harris, the philosopher, has a kind of “guy next door” quality. Though he’s clearly angry and has a bone to pick with religions and their adherents, he maintains a certain philosophical niceness and aloofness. Dawkins plays the role of the brilliant scientist and doesn’t care to be nice. Christopher Hitchens, the reporter, plays the role of the curmudgeon, confidently leveling both barrels and telling his readers exactly what he believes. Where Sam Harris’s book, which I recently reviewed, took the form of a Letter to a Christian Nation and was short and to the point, Dawkins’s The God Delusion is more formal, verbose and sometimes rambling. Where a reader may be left wishing Harris would expand on some of his points a little, he will often wish Dawkins would just get to the point already. We’ll get to Dawkins’s main point momentarily.

Dawkins begins by describing the purpose and intended audience of this book. “It is intended to raise consciousness—raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral, and intellectually fulfilled.” Shortly after he says, “If this book works as I intend, religious leaders who open it will be atheists when they put it down.” Though he admits this may be presumptuous optimism, it seems clear that he is serious. He wants to see nothing less than the eradication of religion and the conversion (or de-conversion) of religious adherents. Making it clear that it is Christians to whom he speaks more than any other, he wastes no time in sharing his opinion of God, at least as He reveals Himself in the Old Testament. “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” Having made clear what he thinks of God, Dawkins defines what he calls the God Hypothesis. “There exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.” Dawkins provides an alternate view. “Any creative intelligence, of sufficient complexity to design anything, comes into existence only as the end product of an extended product of gradual evolution.” God, thus, is a delusion. Dawkins sets out to show that He is a dangerous delusion and attempts to show where He has come from.

Dawkins admits that science cannot disprove God. However, he does feel that science makes God so improbable as to all but disprove His existence. “What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable.” After dedicating a chapter to dealing with common arguments for God’s existence (among which are the proofs offered by Thomas Aquinas, ontological arguments, arguments from beauty, experience, Scripture and even Christian scientists, and so on) he gets to the heart of the book, the argument that he considers extremely powerful and perhaps even impossible to overcome. Turning on the familiar question of “Who made God?” he makes an argument from improbability (calling this the Ultimate Boeing 747 gambit—a phrase that will make sense to those who are familiar with Fred Hoyle’s argument for proving God from design). “However statistically improbable the entity you seek to explain by invoking a designer, the designer himself has got to be at least as improbable.” For this argument to work it is important for people to understand that Darwinism teaches us to be wary of the assumption that the only alternative to chance is design. Instead, Darwinism shows that there can be “graded ramps of slowly increasing complexity.” It shows that organized complexity can arise without the hand of a designer. Thus Darwinism, according to Dawkins, is “the ultimate scientific consciousness-raiser.”

The question Dawkins says theists are unable to answer is this one: Who designed the designer? An entity capable of designing something as improbable and complex as any number of the amazing plants and animals we see in the world would have to be far more improbable. Positing a designer simply aggravates the problem of statistical improbability, so improbable is it that there would be both design and a designer. Design, says Dawkins, is simply unable to deal with improbability. Natural selection, though, is a “cumulative process, which breaks the problem of improbability up into small pieces. Each of the small pieces is slightly improbable, but not prohibitively so.” Natural selection has the power, says Dawkins, to tame improbability. Interestingly, such an assertion goes directly against the work of Michael Behe in his recent book The Edge of Evolution where he discusses the improbability of the mutations upon which evolution depends (and yes, I realize that even mentioning Behe’s name will make many people cease reading this review, so great is animosity towards him. But read my review of his book and you’ll see that I’m no great fan either). Behe also plays the statistics and probability game but with very different conclusions.

Even here, at the conclusion of Dawkins’s primary argument, we are only 160 pages into this 400 page book. He goes on to discuss the roots of religion, attempting to understand how religion evolved. After all, “Religion is so wasteful, so extravagant; and Darwinian selection habitually targets and eliminates waste.” Why, then, does it persist so widely? He proposes that religion is a by-product of something else and is really just the misfiring of an underlying psychological propensity which at one time may have been useful. He then discusses morality, attempting to show that humans do not need religion to be moral, providing several reasons he feels morality can be explained through a Darwinian lens: genetic kinship, reciprocation, benefit from acquiring a reputation for a particular trait and the benefit of conspicuous generosity as a way of buying unfakeably authentic advertising. After suggesting that modern morality does not stem from or depend upon the Bible (and after mocking the biblical concept of atonement), he discusses what is wrong and harmful in religion. Two chapters remain. In the first of these he discusses children, suggesting that raising children to be religious is a form of child abuse (though he backs down from suggesting whether such abuse should be grounds for authorities to punish parents or revoke their parental rights) and in the final chapter shows, to his satisfaction, at least, that humanity has no “God-shaped hole,” no gap that religion needs to fill in individuals or in society.

The book raised two overarching questions in my mind. I was fascinated by Dawkins’s continued references to luck. Luck is necessary even to his central argument. “Natural selection works because it is a cumulative one-way street to improvement. It needs some luck to get started, and the ‘billions of planets’ anthropic principle grants it that luck.” But what is luck? Might it be that even an atheist realizes that even natural selection is an incomplete explanation and that there must exist some force outside of even that? How can luck be a satisfying explanation for a man of science? Is luck ultimately any more satisfying than the presence of a deity? And as for probability, is probability not relative to a person’s perspective? Near the end of the book Dawkins deals quite enjoyable with perspective, showing that we, as humans, only perceive an object like a rock as being solid because of our perspective. Were we much smaller, we would see not a solid mass but the gaps between the atoms. So who are we to declare what is probable and improbable? Dawkins often accuses theists of having too narrow a perspective, of having an arrogance caused by a too-narrow perspective, yet he seems to fall into this same pit with his limited view of probability.

While Dawkins never claimed that he would be fair, I did note that he dealt exceedingly harshly with religion. For example, the book contains multitudes of stories where Christianity is claimed to be the cause of great sins and evils. He continually shows religion in general, and Christianity in particular, at its absolute worst. Never does he pause to show how Christians have brought help and healing to the world. He shows how professed Christians carried on the slave trade, but does not show how they led to its destruction. But when it comes to atheism he provides no bad examples. Even when he discusses Stalin and Hitler he suggests that they committed atrocities not because of their atheistic ideology, but in spite of it. Religious people, it seems, do evil in the name of their faith while atheists do evil despite their lack of faith. This is hardly fair; hardly convincing.

Then again, I don’t suppose I should go looking for fairness. Dawkins made it clear that he intended that this book would drive Christians away from their faith. It certainly did nothing to rock my faith. Despite the fact that this book attempted to do harm to the One I love most, I still enjoyed reading it and would even go so far as to recommend books of this nature to discerning Christian readers. I find it interesting to see how atheist thought is evolving, especially now that atheism is becoming a more legitimate, a more respectable alternative in our society. Dawkins is, in many ways, leading this charge as one of its elder statesmen. Then again, perhaps there is little hope for me. Dawkins makes it clear that religion is the opiate of the masses of those who are not as intelligent as he is and are perhaps not quite as evolved. Throughout the book he takes jabs at those who are not intelligent enough to see that religion is vestigial, that it is just a by-product of something else and that it serves no practical purpose. He is condescending towards those who hold to religion and has a kind of pity for them. There is a sense in which he is right. If God is not real, if Jesus is not the Son of God and has not risen from the dead, Christians are to be pitied above all, for we spend our lives in the wasteful pursuit of a God who is not there.

But my faith remains. The atheist has faith in science and mathematics, faith in pure probability and faith in his own ability to properly interpret them. The faith of the Christian lies elsewhere. We both have faith. But the Christian has hope.

7 years 4 months ago
It requires a certain amount of trust to read and to enjoy a biography. Most books are easily-verified, easily fact-checked. A book discussing a particular doctrine can be easily held up to the Scripture and seen immediately to be true or false. Biographies, though, and especially those that rely on secondary sources, are much more difficult to verify and thus the reader is left having to place his trust in the biographer, believing that she is providing the true story of her subject’s life. In the case of The Most Famous Man in America, a Pulitzer prize winning biography of Henry Ward Beecher, I was never able to reach the point where I really trusted the author, Debby Applegate.

Henry Ward Beecher is an interesting character. He was a Congregationalist minister who came from a family distinguished by many great accomplishments. He was the son of renowned evangelist Lyman Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Isabella Beecher Hooker, a prominent suffragist. His brother, Charles, was a highly-regarded Congregationalist minister. Beecher was well-known across America for being a social reformer and advocate of abolition. He pastored a very large church in Brooklyn, New York—a megachurch long before the word had been coined. Though he was raised by a Calvinist father, he repudiated those beliefs and came to advocate a kind of liberal theology that denied distasteful doctrines such as hell and eternal punishment and emphasized instead the attributes of God that were more palatable to his tastes. A 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica says “He probably did more than any other man in America to lead the Puritan churches from a faith which regarded God as a moral governor, the Bible as a book of laws, and religion as obedience to a conscience to a faith which regards God as a father, the Bible as a book of counsels, and religion as a life of liberty in love.” He was undoubtedly one of the most famous men in America for much of his life.

Despite his accomplishments in religion and politics, he is probably best known for being at the center of one of the nineteenth century’s greatest scandals and one whose lascivious details fueled the nation’s press. Beecher was accused of having an affair with one of his parishioners, a married woman, and the subsequent trial became known as one of the most famous trials of the nineteenth century. The Beecher-Tilton Affair was played out in the media much as such scandals are played out in our day. Beecher was eventually exonerated by a hung jury. Yet his reputation has been forever tainted by the charges that he faced and strenuously denied.

From what I can tell, the biographer, Debby Applegate, is not a Christian. It is often difficult to know just how much an unbeliever understands about subjects having to do with Christians. Of course when Christians write about other Christians it is easy to overlook the subjects’ faults. As New York Times reporter Michael Kazin writes in his review of this book, “Few great preachers in American history have been well served by their biographers. Authors tend to smother princes of the pulpit like Charles Grandison Finney, Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham in tones so erudite and deferential that they end up understating just how controversial these men once were — and fail to explain their remarkable, if somewhat capricious, hold over the hearts and minds of millions of followers.” With a book of this kind there is sometimes reason to be just a bit suspicious, and especially so when the book is lauded by professed theological liberals. It took only a until the first chapter to show Applegate’s appalling ignorance of Calvinism and her hatred of this system of doctrine and hence of biblical Christianity.

I had three prominent concerns with this book. First, the author is clearly ignorant in her understanding of Christianity. Beecher was born into a Calvinist home and his father was considered by some to be the last American Puritan. It seems like his father, Lyman Beecher, accepted the tenets of Calvinistic doctrine and may have even leaned towards some of the unbiblical hyper-Calvinistic teachings (though this is unproven in the text of the biography). In the first chapter, when attempting to understand why Henry eventually accepted doctrine that was more liberal than what his father believed, Applegate shares the religious environment in which the Beecher children were raised. She continually smears Calvinism. Here are several quotes drawn from this chapter.

“As an orthodox Calvinist, Lyman Beecher interpreted the Bible literally, as solid fact…” “In theory Lyman viewed the world through the fatalistic lens of Calvinism—believing that sin and corruption lurked around every corner, and that human fate was preordained by God’s plan.” “Harriet Porter [Lyman’s second wife] suffered from what was then diagnosed as melancholy (what we would now call depression), which was exacerbated by her devotion to the grim teachings of Calvinism. She treated life on earth as an unpleasant duty, a cross to be borne until one reached the joyous gates of heaven.” “…Under Harriet Porter’s chilly influence the dark, authoritarian aspects of Calvinism permeated the parsonage. The endless round of religious rituals that had once seemed merely gloomy now became utterly bleak.”

Second, I could not help but feel that the author’s distaste for Christianity and even her distaste of particular characters in the narrative (and Beecher’s wife stands as probably the most obvious example) led her to portray them in a way that may be unfair and even untruthful.

Finally, the narrative of the book closes not with Beecher’s death (this comes in the Epilogue) but at the close of the sex scandal that tainted his career. It was clear that this scandal was the climax of the book and that everything else simply led to it. Hence the book was a biography, but one that led inevitably to the kind of scandal that so intrigues people in our day and age.

Whether Beecher was the serial adulterer portrayed in this book is difficult to know, even after reading this account. Older accounts of his life regard him as being completely exonerated of the charges he faced. Yet it is clear that he had a lifelong pattern of developing close relationships with women—relationships intimate enough that they disrupted marriages and caused several husbands great jealousy. If he was so willing to form these intimate relationships it seems only a small step from emotional adultery to the physical adultery that formed the basis of the charges against him. Though he was exonerated by a jury he has not been exonerated by history. While the scandal has forever tainted his name, I consider this far less serious than the liberalism he advocated. This biography would have been more interesting to me had it dealt with Beecher’s contribution to the theological downgrade in the late 19th century. Sadly, the biographer’s ignorance of Christian theology meant she had little to say in this regard and instead she focused on moral scandal.

The Most Famous Man in America is a well-written and interesting biography of a particularly fascinating character. Sadly, though, the biographer chose to focus too much on an area that, though important, was not her subject’s most prominent and longest lasting contribution. Though certainly a good biography, I am far from convinced that this one is deserving of a Pulitzer prize. Still, it is well worth reading and would be a worthy addition to a summer reading list.

7 years 4 months ago
Over the weekend I began reading The Most Famous Man in America, Debby Applegate’s recent biography of Henry Ward Beecher. The book has been widely celebrated, winning the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Biography. It was a finalist for The National Book Critics Circle Award Best Biography of 2006 and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Best Biography of 2006. It was even winner of the Frederick G. Melcher Book Award for the most significant contribution to religious liberalism in 2006 (an award distributed by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations). As one might expect, the book has sold well and has been very widely and very well reviewed.

“Henry Ward Beecher (June 24, 1813 – March 8, 1887) was a prominent, theologically liberal American Congregationalist clergyman, social reformer, abolitionist, and speaker in the mid to late 19th Century. He was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, the son of evangelist Lyman Beecher. He was the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Isabella Beecher Hooker, a suffragist. He also had a brother, Charles Beecher, who was a renowned Congregationalist minister.” (This was taken from Wikipedia) Beecher was accused of having an affair with one of his parishioners, a married woman, and the subsequent trial became known as one of the most famous trials of the nineteenth century. A 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica says “He probably did more than any other man in America to lead the Puritan churches from a faith which regarded God as a moral governor, the Bible as a book of laws, and religion as obedience to a conscience to a faith which regards God as a father, the Bible as a book of counsels, and religion as a life of liberty in love.”

From what I can tell, the biographer, Debby Applegate, is not a Christian. It is often difficult to know just how much an unbeliever understands about a subject who is a Christian. Of course when Christians write about other Christians it is easy to overlook the subjects’ faults. As New York Times reporter Michael Kazin writes in his review of this book, “Few great preachers in American history have been well served by their biographers. Authors tend to smother princes of the pulpit like Charles Grandison Finney, Dwight Moody, Billy Sunday and Billy Graham in tones so erudite and deferential that they end up understating just how controversial these men once were — and fail to explain their remarkable, if somewhat capricious, hold over the hearts and minds of millions of followers.” With a book of this kind there is sometimes reason to be just a bit suspicious, and especially so when the book is lauded by professed theological liberals. It took only a until the first chapter to show Applegate’s appalling ignorance of Calvinism and her hatred of this system of doctrine and hence of biblical Christianity.

Ward was born into a Calvinist home and his father was considered by some to be the last American Puritan. It seems like his father, Lyman Beecher, accepted the tenets of Calvinistic doctrine and may have even leaned towards some of the unbiblical hyper-Calvinistic teachings (though this is unproven in the text of the biography). Frankly, when a person is sufficiently hostile towards Calvinism, the critical distinctions between Calvinism and hyper-Calvinism are quickly blurred and become indistinguishable. In the first chapter, when attempting to understand why Henry eventually accepted doctrine that was more liberal than what his father believed, Applegate shares the religious environment in which the Beecher children were raised. She continually smears Calvinism. Here are several quotes pulled from this chapter.

“As an orthodox Calvinist, Lyman Beecher interpreted the Bible literally, as solid fact…” This is clearly a liberal perspective on Christianity, for all true Christians regard the Bible literally and as solid fact. Of course there are portions that must be regarded as allegory or as metaphor, but where the Bible is written as fact, we must accept it as such. And we do. This does not apply only to Calvinists or Puritans but to all believers.

“In theory Lyman viewed the world through the fatalistic lens of Calvinism—believing that sin and corruption lurked around every corner, and that human fate was preordained by God’s plan.” It is not unusual for unbelievers, and even for non-Calvinistic unbelievers, to regard Calvinistic doctrine as fatalistic. Of course predestination and God’s sovereignty over the universe is made clear in Scripture and really those who decry Calvinism as fatalistic have an argument with the Bible, not with Calvin. Here is a good and quick summary of the biblical view: “God is working everything that happens in the Universe according to his own divine plan and will. But He’s chosen to work out this will through means. No Calvinist believes that God makes robots of us. The Westminster Confession itself says that God does no violence to our wills in predestination. Instead He works through our own actions — both good and evil ones” (link).

“Harriet Porter [Lyman’s second wife] suffered from what was then diagnosed as melancholy (what we would now call depression), which was exacerbated by her devotion to the grim teachings of Calvinism. She treated life on earth as an unpleasant duty, a cross to be borne until one reached the joyous gates of heaven.” I was intrigued by the word “grim.” This seems to be Applegate’s understanding of the doctrine, not that of Harriet Porter who was a convinced Calvinist, even if a melancholy one. Those who embrace the doctrines of grace know that there is no better remedy to melancholy than a proper, biblical understanding of God’s sovereignty.

“Yet, like the Lord of the Old Testament, Lyman often seemed capricious in the way in which he wielded his great power. Henry was never sure if he’d run into the lenient, affectionate side or the wrathful, authoritarian side of his father, and this uncertainty shadowed his childhood.” Again, charging God with capriciousness is clearly an act of the author and not her subject.

“…Under Harriet Porter’s chilly influence the dark, authoritarian aspects of Calvinism permeated the parsonage. The endless round of religious rituals that had once seemed merely gloomy now became utterly bleak.” Here is another example of the author’s personal disgust with Calvinism.

The indoctrination into Calvinism took a heavy psychological toll. In today’s culture parents consider it a prime duty to build up their child’s self-esteem, but prior to the 1830s most Christian parents took the opposite view, believing that their task was to tame their child’s strong ego and natural willfulness, to make him humble before God. ‘Henry, do you know that every breath you breathe in is sin?’ Lyman asked as soon as the boy was old enough to speak. ‘Well, it is—every breath.’ It was a crushing thing for a little boy to hear, especially from the mouth of his own father.

And why was he born so sinful? According to the catechism, the answer was clear: Because Adam and Eve disobeyed God, forever corrupting all human beings. This concept of ‘original sin,’ as it is known, was one of the first sentences a Yankee child learned to read, printed in every school primer: ‘In Adam’s fall, we Sinned All.’ The cruel logic of original sin was enough to turn any child away from religion…

 

This understanding of man’s sinfulness borders on truth, but certainly does not adequately or truthfully summarize the biblical position. The catechism referenced is the Shorter Catechism but, sadly, Applegate did not see fit to include excerpts which would far better summarize the Calvinistic position on original sin. In Adam’s fall we did all, indeed, sin. But there is more to the story than this. To suggest this is cruel logic is to ignore one of the great truths of the world—that we are all sinful and that we all have a propensity for sin. Who can deny this? What liberal explanation is there for man’s love of sin?

Applegate goes on to say that “the burden of original sin was compounded by the capriciousness of salvation. In the Calvinist universe, salvation was considered a supernatural act, a testament to God’s sovereignty and mercy, not merely a reward for good behavior.” So again, God is capricious, not only in the Old Testament, but also in the way He dispenses salvation. Once more, this dishonestly portrays the Calvinist position which makes it clear that God is in no way capricious. Finally, towards the end of the chapter she takes a final dig at Calvinism, contrasting Lyman’s Calvinism with the growing liberal tendencies of one of her daughters—a battle that was followed closely by young Henry. “Never before,” Applegate writes, “had the cruel contradictions of Calvinism been so dramatized in their house.”

All of this is drawn from a chapter entitled “Damned if You Do, Damned if You Don’t.” The title speaks volumes of the author’s understanding of Calvinism, of the Bible, and of the God of both. While this biography is well-written and has been greatly-acclaimed, it’s a shame that she has not seen fit to truly understand the religious environment of her subject’s youth. I hope the book’s remaining chapters depend, as any biography should, more on the words of the subject and less on the words of the biographer.

7 years 5 months ago
The Bible tells us about three people who were privileged to see heaven on this side of the grave. All of these men, Stephen and the Apostles Paul and John, were alive when they were given a glimpse of the wonders of heaven. Don Piper, a Baptist pastor, claims to be a fourth, though unlike the other three, he first had to die first. Returning home from a conference, Piper’s car was crushed under the wheels of a truck. Though medical personnel declared him dead at the scene of the accident, ninety minutes after this accident, a pastor, waiting at the scene, was told by God to pray for the dead man. He did so, and Piper immediately returned to life. For the 90 minutes that his body lay lifeless inside the car, Piper claims to have been in heaven. He now carries with him memories of paradise and in 90 Minutes in Heaven, a book which has sold over a million copies and which has been a long-time fixture on the New York Times list of bestsellers, he seeks to encourage other Christians with a description of our eternal home. “Because I was able to experience heaven,” he says, “I was able to prepare [friends] for it. And now I am preparing you.”

The title may be deceptive. A reader might assume, from the title, that a significant portion of the book is dedicated to describing heaven. The reality is that the author’s time in heaven comprises only 15 pages of this 205-page book. A further seven pages, appended to the end of the book, engage very briefly (and unsatisfactorily) with the “why questions.” The bulk of the book describes Piper’s accident, rescue and convalescence with some attention to the ministry opportunities that have arisen since his time in heaven. The book is, in reality, a biographical sketch of Don Piper and a lengthy description of the trials he faced as he recovered from devastating bodily injuries. Following the description of heaven, there is little further reflection on paradise. There is little attempt to describe how the author’s life and perspective on Scripture have changed because of his experience. There is little interaction with the Bible. There is little gospel.

Piper’s description of heaven left me cold. I was dismayed to find that his heaven seems largely man-centered. In fact, if you were to ask your unbelieving friends and neighbors to describe heaven, they would probably create a place very much like this. Piper did not see Jesus, nor did he see God, though, to be fair, he saw only the “outskirts” and did not pass through the pearlescent gates. Despite this, he was exceedingly joyful and feels that he experienced the very joys of paradise. For ninety minutes he walked through heaven, greeted by those he knew in this life, all of whom were (quite conveniently), the same age they were when he had last known them. As I read this description of heaven I thought immediately of a quote from John Piper’s book God is the Gospel. He asks:

The critical question for our generation—and for every generation—is this: If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever say, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?

From the descriptions in 90 Minutes in Heaven we would would have to respond, “yes!” It seems that Don Piper’s heaven is a heaven where we are fulfilled without Christ. Piper’s heaven was a place of reunion with loved ones, a place of beautiful music and a place of literal pearl (or “pearlescent”) gates and literal streets of gold. It is a heaven that can be so easily described to a human mind using mere human words, as if it had originated in a human mind. Piper is able to describe it in some detail, but what he presents is surely far too human to be heaven.

A further troubling aspect of the book is a clear lack of theological precision. For example, Piper continually describes miracles that surrounded his rescue and recovery, yet these are often not the type of events that theologians would classify as being miraculous. They may have shown God’s grace and power, but they were not, strictly speaking, miracles. He also uses his experience to minister to people who lack assurance of their faith. But what true, lasting assurance can we find in the dubious experiences of another mere human? Our assurance is to be in God and His promises through Scripture, not in man.

I do believe Don Piper is a sincere man and one who loves God. He seems to sincerely believe that he experienced heaven and has been called by God to share his experience with others. But I do not believe that he did see heaven. I cannot say what his experience was, whether it was purely psychological or whether it was even some type of demonic deception. What I do know is that the Scriptures are wholly sufficient for believers. We do not need to see or experience heaven in this life. Nor should we desire Don Piper’s heaven or to be encouraged by this experience.

I see no reason to believe that God wants us to know more about heaven than He has revealed to us in His Word. As the old hymn asks, “What more can he say than to you he has said?” God surely desires that we desire heaven, but only if we desire heaven primarily so we can be with the Savior. This is the heaven which we glimpse only dimly in Scripture, but which we await with eager expectation. It is most certainly not Piper’s 90-minute heaven.

7 years 6 months ago

On Sunday, April 14, 1935, a massive dust storm fell upon a portion of five different states: Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico. The greatest and worst dust storm on record, it turned night into day and became known ever after as Black Sunday. During the 1930s these storms had become common throughout the Great Plains and extending all the way into the Canadian prairies.

The First World War had made many farmers wealthy as the price of wheat soared, and as it did so, millions of acres of new sod was broken throughout the Plains. Sod was turned upside down and wheat grew as never before. However, after the war ended, a time of drought hit the Western part of the continent and the soil dried out to become dust. The soil blew upwards and eastwards, forming great clouds that traveled across the continent, sometimes blanketing Chicago, New York and Washington. As the drought continued year-after-year, a large percentage of the population was forced to migrate away from the effected States. What had once been rich farmland was left as little more than desert. Much of it remains that way even today.

Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time, a book that made a brief appearance on the New York Times list of bestsellers and is a National Book Award finalist, is a fascinating little slice of history. It tells the story of a few people in a small portion of a great nation. Focusing on a couple of towns in the midst of the Dust Bowl, it describes first the men and women who headed to the Plains seeking to put down roots, then the brief success they enjoyed, and finally the pain and despair they endured as their land turned to dust. It is, in the words of the Times, a classic disaster tale and one that serves to caution us against trifling with Creation and against taking it for granted. Though sometimes a little bit raw in dealing with the raw realities of life on the wild frontier, it is well-written and deals with an interesting topic. It is a great example of popular history and is well worth the read.

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