Justice, Mercy, and Brokenness (Review)

Toward the beginning of his memoir Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, lawyer Bryan Stevenson writes, “I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned” (18). In the course of the book, he relates how he came to believe this, and how he came to found the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama nonprofit that, according to its website, “is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.”

Just-MercyThe main story Stevenson tells in the book is that of Walter McMillian, whom Stevenson began representing in the 1980s. McMillian, who is black, was on death row after being convicted of killing a white woman in Monroeville, Alabama—the hometown of Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird, and the real-life model for its fictional town of Maycomb—but he didn’t do it. As Stevenson digs into the case, he finds evidence that, since it was a high-profile crime and the public was anxious for a conviction, the local authorities were more than willing to pin it on McMillian, despite the fact that witnesses saw McMillian elsewhere while the crime was being committed. During jury selection, the prosecution excluded African Americans. During the trial, the prosecution relied on two key witnesses who lied. And when the jury recommended life in prison, the presiding judge stepped in and escalated it to the death penalty. (State court judges in Alabama are elected by popular vote, and nobody who is looking to win an election wants to be seen as “soft on crime.”)

Stevenson intersperses McMillian’s story with the stories of other people he has represented, including the mentally ill and those who were serving life sentences without parole for crimes they committed as juveniles. As he tells story after story, the evidence piles up that it is too easy in our justice system to wrongfully convict or excessively punish people who lack the resources to defend themselves. Racism is often a factor in unjust convictions and harsh sentences, as it was in the case of McMillian, but Stevenson is careful not to lay all of the problems of our justice system at the feet of systemic racism. All of the people whose stories he tells are poor, but they are of different races. It seems the bigger culprit, of which even racism is a symptom, is our tendency to treat people who are different from us—culturally, racially, socioeconomically—as an Other to be feared and controlled. In this situation, it is the poor, minorities, and mentally ill especially who don’t have the means to resist the ways in which we try to control them or keep them at a distance, both physically and psychologically.

Stevenson doesn’t write about where his vision of justice comes from—why he sees certain things as just and others as unjust. And aside from occasional mentions of church attendance and prayer, he doesn’t talk about his religious commitments. He doesn’t explicitly root his vision of justice and mercy in a particular view of the world, and that’s probably for the best if he wants to convince people from any religion and no religion that justice reform is needed. But I believe his vision is deeply Christian, and the church can learn much from it. I especially saw this in his chapter, “Broken,” in which he sees all people as united in their brokenness:

We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. I desperately wanted mercy for Jimmy Dill [one of his clients who was about to be executed] and would have done anything to create justice for him, but I couldn’t pretend that his struggle was disconnected from my own. The ways in which I have been hurt—and have hurt others—are different from the ways Jimmy Dill suffered and caused suffering. But our shared brokenness connected us. … Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing. Our shared vulnerability and imperfection nurtures and sustains our capacity for compassion.

We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity. (289)

We are all prone to sort the world into Us vs. Them, and then think the solution to our problems is for Us to get rid of Them. Even many readers of Just Mercy may fall into thinking the solution to the problems in our justice system is for Us (the enlightened readers of this book) to seize power and punish them (the racists, those who profit from mass incarceration, etc.).

But according to Stevenson, the solution to fear and hatred of the Other is seeing what unites us. And what unites us is not our race, or status, or our intellectual ability, or our nationality. According to Stevenson (and even though he doesn’t explicitly root it there, this is firmly within the mainstream of the historic Christian understanding of humanity), what unites us is that we are all broken in some way. We are all in need of justice and mercy.

 

 

Disclaimer: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

All Religion Isn’t Bad, but There Is Such a Thing as Bad Religion (Review)

You don’t often hear people called heretics anymore. In 1905, the British journalist G. K. Chesterton wrote a book called Heretics, in which he critiqued the teachings of several of his contemporaries, including H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. Even then, though, writing a book calling out heresies was kind of cheeky. In the age of the modern nation-state, when dissenters from orthodoxy no longer get punished (and by the way, I think that’s a good thing), it hardly seems worth one’s while to call someone out as a heretic.

Nevertheless, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat does just that in his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012). Douthat himself is a Catholic who has sympathies with conservative Protestantism. In this book,  he takes as a starting point that the famous secularization thesis popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth  century is wrong; societies do not inevitably become less religious as they become more modern. Rather, Douthat writes that “every human culture is religious—defined by what its inhabitants believe about some ultimate reality, and what they think that reality demands of them” (3). All societies have some beliefs about what the world is like and what people ought to do. Whether that belief involves the supernatural or not, or has weekly services or not, it functions as a religion.

If religion is inescapable because beliefs about ultimate reality are inescapable, then religion itself is not the problem and trying to get rid of all religion is not the solution. If you try your best to get rid of some forms of religion, other forms will pop up in their place. On the other hand, if you’re a religious person, then secularization is not the main problem. “The secular mistake has been to assume that every theology tends inevitably toward the same follies and fanaticisms, and to imagine that a truly postreligious culture is even possible, let alone desirable. The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul” (4).

The problem, according to Douthat, is bad religion: “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place” (4).

The book comes in two parts. In the first, “Christianity in Crisis,” Douthat traces the devolution of Christianity over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century. While heresies have always been present, he argues, what makes our current climate different is the weakness of the orthodox Christian response to them.

He begins the second, “The Age of Heresy,” by pointing out heresy’s inclination toward resolving ambiguity. Whereas Christian orthodoxy has always embraced paradox and sought to hold seemingly contradictory things in tension (Is Jesus God or human? Yes.), heresies have always sought a ruthless narrowing (Does Jesus seem in some ways unlike the God of the Old Testament? Get rid of the Old Testament). “The goal of the great heresies … has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus” (153). This, Douthat argues, has led to the “lost gospel” trend in scholarship about Christian origins. In it, scholars like to present a one-dimensional vision of Jesus—as only human, or as only a wise teacher, or as only a Gnostic sage. Usually, these one-dimensional portraits of Jesus look an awful lot like the scholar (or popularizer, in the case of the novelist Dan Brown) who is arguing that this is what Jesus was really like. Upon closer examination, these claims about the early history of Christianity prove to be inconclusive or outright false, but their popularity tells a lot about what many Americans want to believe.

The next three chapters Douthat spends looking at other heresies that have emerged from the tendency to make Jesus in our own image and to forcibly resolve paradoxes that have existed in Christianity from the beginning: the prosperity gospel of preachers like Joel Osteen, the therapeutic “god within” theology of Oprah, Deepak Chopra, and others, and God-and-country-but-mostly-country Christian nationalism.

He then closes the book with a vision of what a renewed Christianity might look like. First, it will be political without being partisan, avoiding the temptation to fit Christianity into the mold of ideologies on the right or the left but at the same time not becoming quietist or indifferent. Second, it will be ecumenical but also confessional, reaching out to like-minded others without watering down one’s own theological commitments. To do this we need strong institutions. Christians who are part of churches with clearly defined theological commitments will be less susceptible to watering down their faith by uniting it with (for example) a political platform. Third, it will be moralistic but also holistic—not downplaying the ethical demands of Christianity while at the same time not becoming unduly focused on hot-button moral issues (sexual immorality) to the neglect of other, just as important, moral issues (gluttony, greed, pride). Fourth, it will be oriented toward sanctity and beauty. It will cultivate both saints and artists. Here he quotes Joseph Ratzinger shortly before he became Pope Benedict XVI: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb” (291).

This is a great book, and I recommend it to any Christian believer who wonders how we got to a place where so many Americans want to believe that there were suppressed gospels, that God wants to make them wealthy, that the only God that matters is inside each of us, or that God may be subservient to a political ideology, whether on the right or the left. I found the first part of the book to be a tough slog, focused as it was on recounting a history that I was mostly familiar with. And while I was not sure about parts of Douthat’s interpretation of that history, I agree with his central insights—that secularism is more of a bogeyman than a real threat to Christianity, that heresy tends to resolve the paradoxes of orthodoxy in a self-serving way, and that heresy is rampant today in part because of the weakness of orthodox Christianity’s response.

Unscripted by Ernie Johnson (Review)

Probably like many people, I know Ernie Johnson Jr. from his work as a broadcaster at Turner Sports, particularly hosting Inside the NBA on TNT. I knew next to nothing about him besides that, but when I found out he was coming out with a biography from a well-known Christian publisher (Baker Books) and this biography was being released right around the start of the NBA playoffs, when Johnson is more visible than at most other times of the year (good job on setting the release date, Baker), I was intrigued enough to pick up a copy.

The book is called Unscripted: The Unpredictable Moments that Make Life Extraordinary. Johnson said he got the idea for the book after the ESPN program E:60 did a feature on his family. A recurring theme in the book is “blackberry moments,” named after an incident from Johnson’s childhood that he relates in the first chapter. He was playing in a Little League game that was delayed for a while when two of the outfielders, who had gone over the fence to look for a lost ball, ended up picking blackberries instead. Johnson defines a blackberry moment as, among other things, “an unforeseen moment that catches you off guard and marks you forever” (189).

41EaV5FFk8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_There are plenty such moments in the book, from Johnson’s childhood in Atlanta growing up as the son of the Braves’ play-by-play announcer, to his own work as a broadcaster, to his life with his wife and six kids (two biological and four adopted, including one with muscular dystrophy that keeps him in a wheelchair), to his becoming a committed Christian in the ’90s, to his fight against cancer between 2003 and 2006. There were difficult moments in all of these, but Johnson dwells on the unpredictable, joyful gifts—the blackberries—that he has received throughout his life and that have made it all worthwhile. He also tells a few “dad jokes” along the way, but rather than groaning at them, I found them to be an endearing part of his voice. They made him seem like a regular guy.

This is a good book for fans of Johnson’s work, of course. However, even people like me who knew who he was but didn’t watch him that regularly can get a lot out of this book. It’s not really about sports; it’s about how to navigate life. At one point Johnson quotes the spiritual writer Dallas Willard: “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.” Johnson tries to eliminate hurry by looking for blackberry moments everywhere, and his description of this search is inspiring.

Note: Thanks to Baker Books for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

As Kingfishers Catch Fire (Review)

Eugene Peterson has long been one of my heroes. As I was studying to be a pastor, I would sometimes become anxious, thinking that I would have to become an über-extroverted CEO to keep up with contemporary expectations for what a pastor should be. I would be filled with dread and second-guessing until I went back and read some of Peterson’s writing on pastoring (like The Contemplative Pastor), and I would be reassured that I was not crazy to think that someone with my personality could do it, even in America.

Since then, I haven’t followed the path I thought I would. I love and am committed to the local church, but so far I haven’t ended up serving as a pastor. Peterson is still a hero, though, and I still turn to his writings for guidance not just on how to be a pastor in today’s world, but how to be a Christian—or even a human—as well.

9781601429674In mid-May this year, Waterbrook will publish As Kingfishers Catch Fire: A Conversation on the Ways of God Formed by the Words of God, a collection of Peterson’s sermons from when he served Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland. It’s the second of his books whose title comes from a single poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (the first being Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places). In the preface, he writes that the goal of all his pastoral work, including the sermons he preached, was congruence:

The Christian life is the lifelong practice of attending to the details of congruence—congruence between ends and means, congruence between what we do and the way we do it, congruence between what is written in Scripture and our living out what is written, congruence between a ship and its prow, congruence between preaching and living, congruence between the sermon and what is lived in both preacher and congregation, the congruence of the Word made flesh in Jesus with what is lived in our flesh. (xviii)

There are forty-nine sermons in this collection from the twenty-nine years Peterson was a pastor. They are divided into seven parts, with seven sermons each. Each part is focused on the books associated with a biblical figure: Moses, David, Isaiah, Solomon, Peter, Paul, and John. There is an introduction to each of these parts that sets the passages the sermons are based on in their biblical context. Peterson states outright that this is not a “best of” collection; rather, they are a representative sample.

Something is always lost when sermons are printed in a book, and no doubt that is the case here. But at the same time, getting a taste of these sermons is better than nothing, and I for one am grateful to have them. Each sermon is between five and six pages long, which is a good length to take one at a time as devotional reading.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

The Life of the Church (Review)

Moody Publishers has recently published three books on the church from Joe Thorn: The Heart of the Church: The Gospel’s History, Message, and Meaning, The Character of the Church: The Marks of God’s Obedient People, and The Life of the Church: The Table, Pulpit, and SquareThey are intended, respectively, to answer the questions: What does the church believe? What makes a church a church? and What should a church do?

Since I’m always interested in people’s visions of what the church ought to be and do, and I’m on my own church’s leadership team, I decided to pick up the third book to see what Thorn had to say.

9780802414694The book itself is short, almost a booklet (it’s 109 pages). It has a cool design that features the colors black and green, and Thorn himself seems like a cool guy (he has tattoos and wears shirts with epaulets). According to the book, the mission of the church is to follow Christ and make disciples in three environments: the table, pulpit, and square. The “table” is Thorn’s way of talking about a church’s inward community; “pulpit” represents the church’s worship gatherings; and “square” stands for the public square, i.e., the church’s activities in the surrounding community of participation, restoration, conversation, and multiplication.

These three images make up a clever heuristic for thinking about what the church is supposed to do. I’m sure it will stick with me, and that I’ll continue to find this book useful. Finally, while there are many things in the book that churches from any denomination would agree with, when you read between the lines a bit it does seem clear that Thorn is writing from within the Reformed Baptist tradition. Readers of any denomination could benefit from this book, but those who share Thorn’s tradition will be the most “at home” in it.

Note: Thanks to Moody Publishers for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

How to Build and Maintain a Vision: A Review

Andy Stanley is the pastor of a group of churches in the Atlanta area that started with North Point Community Church, and he is on the list of pastors whose recorded sermons I periodically listen to (Tim Keller and John Ortberg are the others). In 1999 he wrote a book, Visioneering: Your Guide to Discovering and Maintaining Personal Vision, that was later reissued in a revised and updated version.

41mstogyjlThe book is loosely structured around the biblical book of Nehemiah, following Nehemiah’s transition from cupbearer to the king of Persia to governor of Judea as he sought to make the vision of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem a reality. The “visioneering” of the title is “the course one follows to make dreams a reality. It is the process whereby ideas and convictions take on substance. … If I were to boil it down to a formula, it would look something like this: VISIONEERING = INSPIRATION + CONVICTION + ACTION + DETERMINATION + COMPLETION” (9). It is moving from what is to what can be in any area of life, big or small, in your career, family life, or church.

Along with the book of Nehemiah, the book is also structured around the 20 building blocks that Stanley says are involved in pursuing a vision:

  1. A vision begins as a concern.
  2. A vision does not necessarily require immediate action.
  3. Pray for opportunities and plan as if you expect God to answer your prayers.
  4. God is using your circumstances to position and prepare you.
  5. What God originates, he orchestrates.
  6. Walk before you talk; investigate before you initiate.
  7. Communicate your vision as a solution to a problem that must be addressed now.
  8. Cast your vision to the appropriate people at the appropriate time.
  9. Don’t expect others to take greater risks or make greater sacrifices than you have.
  10. Don’t confuse your plans with God’s vision.
  11. Visions are refined—they don’t change; plans are revised—they rarely stay the same.
  12. Respond to criticism with prayer, remembrance, and if necessary, a revision of the plan.
  13. Visions thrive in an environment of unity; they die in an environment of division.
  14. Abandon the vision before you abandon your moral authority.
  15. Don’t get distracted.
  16. There is divine potential in all you envision to do.
  17. The end of a God-ordained vision is God.
  18. Maintaining a vision requires adherence to a set of core beliefs and behaviors.
  19. Visions require constant attention.
  20. Maintaining a vision requires bold leadership.

This is the sort of book that is more rewarding the more you put into it. In fact, I read the original version a while back and was not particularly struck by it. It had some good advice, but wasn’t life-changing. This time, I spent more time trying to apply what Stanley was saying to my own life (there are application questions at the end of every chapter, as well as a group discussion guide at the end), and I found it to be much more useful. I recommend this book to anyone, particularly any Christian, who has some idea of where they would like to be, but is looking for practical steps on how to get there.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book through Blogging for Books. I was not asked to give a positive review.

 

Faithful No Matter the Cost: A Review

I have never gone to L’Abri, the Christian community and study center that Francis Schaeffer founded in Switzerland, but I was greatly influenced by it growing up. My mom had been there in the ’70s when she was sorting through what she believed, and in our house there were several of Schaeffer’s books. I went to a L’Abri conference in Greensboro, NC with her in the late ’90s, and listened to the lecture tapes I got there for several years afterward.

Os Guinness is an English social critic who was a leader at L’Abri in the late ’60s. He has gone on to do a variety of things since then, but his connection with L’Abri is what originally turned me on to his books. I think the first one I read was The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (1998), which came out while I was in college and helped me sort through what I was thinking about career and vocation. In the last several years he has written a book every year: A Free People’s Suicide (2012, and my current favorite of his), The Global Public Square (2013), Renaissance (2014), Fool’s Talk (2015), and this year Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization.

9780830844654This latest book is a call to Christians in the West to be the “impossible people” of the title. The term “impossible man” was used to describe the medieval reformer Peter Damian, who attacked evil within the church. While some in his time criticized him for being purely negative, his great passion was for faithfulness to the gospel. He was later recognized for this positive passion and was canonized. Guinness calls Christians to have this same passion for faithfulness: “Living before the absolute presence of God, we are called to be faithful, and therefore unmanipulable, unbribable, undeterrable and unclubbable. We serve an impossible God, and we are to be God’s impossible people. Let us then determine and resolve to be so faithful in all the challenges and ordeals the onrushing future brings that it may be said of us that we in our turn have served God’s purpose in our generation. So help us God” (223).

Those who have read Guinness’s earlier book Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times may wonder how this book relates to that one, since the subject matter appears similar. Guinness makes this comparison:

Impossible People is a companion to my earlier book Renaissance, which came first for a reason. In that book I explored the reasons for our response of assured faith in the gospel—which must be forever unshakeable—and it concluded with hope. I deliberately reversed the normal order of “challenge and response” and put the response before the challenge. Such is the character and record of the gospel of Jesus that we may trust it absolutely however dark the times and however bleak the challenge. Doom, gloom, alarmism and fear are never the way for the people of God. We are to have “no fear.”  Impossible People addresses the challenges we face and subjective side that is our response to these challenges—the gospel carries its own inherent transforming power, but we need to trust it, obey it and live it—against all the odds and at any cost. (33)

Guinness spends the bulk of the book, six chapters, enumerating various challenges Christians face in the West: secularism, modernity, spiritual warfare, social constructionism, atheism, and generationalism. Then he spends a final chapter setting forth some tools Christians should use to discern and engage the times they live in.

Guinness is a skillful writer, and I enjoy everything he writes. This book was no exception, yet I am also ambivalent about it. I agree with him about many of the challenges he sees facing the church in the West, but I think splitting the “challenge and response” into two books has caused him to focus unduly on one side in this book. There seemed to me to be not enough space spent on the proper response Christians ought to have to these various challenges. The book felt incomplete in that regard. Also, since each of the challenges he enumerates is complex and could warrant a separate book on its own, I thought some of his critiques were too broad-brushed and lacked the power to resonate with anyone but those who were already convinced.

So if you want to read Guinness’s thoughtful take on the current cultural climate, I would recommend reading Renaissance first (read my review of that book here). Then, if you’d like more detail, read Impossible People.

Note: Thanks to the publisher, InterVarsity Press, for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

What Draws Young People to Churches: A Review

It happens all across America: churches start out doing well, but they stop paying attention and pretty soon everyone is over 40. Or 50. Or 60. The congregation decides they need to do something to draw young people, but they don’t know what to do. So they look for some kind of silver bullet like starting a new program or hiring a new staff member, but it doesn’t work.

If this sounds like your experience, Brad Griffin, Kara Powell, and Jake Mulder of the Fuller Youth Institute are here to help. They conducted a study of churches that have found ways to grow young instead of old, and the resulting book, Growing Young: 6 Essential Strategies to Help Young People Discover and Love Your Church, spells out the core commitments of those churches.

9780801019258Those core commitments are:

  1. Unlock keychain leadership. They have leaders who will share their authority with young people, inviting them to grow in their responsibilities.
  2. Empathize with today’s young people. Older members remember what it was like to be young, and they also try to understand the challenges young people today face that they didn’t. Then they do all they can to help young people work through the challenges of finding identity, belonging, and purpose.
  3. Take Jesus’ message seriously. They proclaim Jesus as “the centerpiece of the story of God” and seek “to live out his message in everyday relationships” (129). In other words, these churches are theologically robust; they don’t preach the moralistic therapeutic deism that distracts people in our culture.
  4. Fuel a warm community. They didn’t just create programs for young people to connect in their church; their entire church gave young people an authentic and welcoming feeling. Structures were not enough for these churches. The people were also warm and inviting.
  5. Prioritize young people (and families) everywhere. Churches can make the first four commitments and still grow old. Churches that grew young also made young people and families a priority. They committed resources and attention to them throughout the life of the congregation, including in their worship gatherings, staffing, and budget.
  6. Be the best neighbors. These churches were not antagonistic toward culture, but sought out ways to both live faithfully and serve their neighbors. This is difficult, since the values of those outside the church and those inside it often conflict, but churches that grow young never stop asking, “Who is my neighbor?” and committing to serve them.

When I got this book in the mail, it was thicker than I thought it would be. It is packed with the authors’ research findings, as well as stories from the churches they studied (side note: one of the churches they studied was the District Church in Washington, DC, one of whose pastors is my friend Aaron Graham. It was especially fun and interesting for me to read stories about what they are doing there.) Each chapter ends with ideas for action, as well as reflection questions to help you and your church’s leaders think about where your church is now and how it could change.

This book is particularly relevant for pastors and church leadership teams. Youth pastors and student ministry volunteers can and will benefit from it too, but part of the message of the book is that churches who do well at engaging young people don’t limit that engagement to a youth program or young adult ministry. The entire church needs to prioritize young people, and the “keys” (i.e., authority) to do that come from the lead pastor and leadership team.

Note: Thanks to the publisher, Baker Books, for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Henri Nouwen’s Letters on the Spiritual Life: A Review

Four years after the Catholic priest and spiritual writer Henri Nouwen died9781101906354, Gabrielle Earnshaw began archiving his correspondence. Now, to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of his death, she has collected some of these letters and released them as Love, Henri: Letters on the Spiritual Life (not to be confused with the essential oils company “Love Henri,” which I just learned about while writing this).

These letters span about twenty-two years of Nouwen’s life, from 1973, when he was teaching at Yale Divinity School, to his death in 1996 when he was pastor to the L’Arche community near Toronto. Each is prefaced with a brief intro that explains who the recipient was and the occasion of writing. Together, they depict a man who took friendship and his role as a pastor seriously, who cared deeply for people and wanted them to draw close to God. For example, he wrote this at the end of a letter evaluating a student’s paper:

By becoming one with us, God revealed himself as God to us. Thus the experience of our humanity as a forgiven weakness leads us to the heart of God’s love for us and to the center of His forgiving presence in our life. Therefore I think that your story is the story with which you can come to know God’s story better, and it is His story that makes our story worth living. (41)

While he wrote many books, he regarded his ministry of being present to people as the heart of his calling:

When I think about my life and my work, I think about it more as a way of being present to people with all I have. I have always tried to respond as honestly as I possibly could to the needs and concerns of the people who became part of my life, and I have tried to respond with whatever my own life has taught me. … I do not remember ever having to sit down “to write a book.” The publications that you know are more a result of speaking with people, sharing my own life with them and trying to give words to what often remains hidden under the threshold of our consciousness. (72)

As I read this book I learned much about the value of friendship, the need for vulnerability, and the nature of spiritual direction. These are letters from a man who reflected deeply on the spiritual life and who was deliberate about pointing his friends to the love of God in Christ. While he had many struggles of his own throughout his life—and these also come out in the letters—he always seemed to make time to help a friend in need. In fact, he wanted to use his own struggles to help others by being open about them. In this way, he thought, they would be “a source of consolation and healing.”

I was also struck by the value of archival work (my mind went in this direction in part because my wife trained as an archivist). I’m thankful to Gabrielle Earnshaw (and Sue Mosteller, Henri Nouwen’s literary executrix) for taking the time and effort to select and introduce these letters. They have given readers a wonderful gift.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book.

The Story of God’s Dwelling Place: A Review

If you’ve been following this blog over the last couple of months, you know I went on a trip to Israel this summer. On that trip I gained a newfound interest in the physical details of places in the Bible. The more I know, for example, about what Jerusalem looked like in the first century, the easier it is to visualize the events that happened there.

9780801016202J. Daniel Hays has written a useful little book for people who are curious about the physical spaces where God was worshiped in the Bible: The Temple and the Tabernacle: A Study of God’s Dwelling Place from Genesis to Revelation. It relies on recent research into archaeology as well as biblical studies and ancient history, and it also manages to be a very useful book even for the reader without a lot of background knowledge.

From creation until the incarnation of Christ, according to Hays, the story of God’s dwelling place is a story of decline. As many other scholars have argued, Hays writes that the garden of Eden was itself a temple designed as a place where humans could have communion with God. God walked with them there until their sin caused them to be evicted from God’s presence. Later, after the exodus, the tabernacle enabled God to dwell among his people again, but his glorious presence was limited to the holy of holies. Only the high priest could go there, and then only once a year.

Hays continues to document this decline in Solomon’s temple. Yes, God’s presence did inhabit Solomon’s temple, but there are many subtle indications in the biblical account that all was not well, even before the end of Solomon’s life when his idolatry is named explicitly. There are significant differences between the way Moses oversaw the building of the tabernacle and the way Solomon oversaw the building of the temple. For example, Solomon relies on a Canaanite craftsman to build the temple. And whereas the tabernacle was built using the voluntary contributions of the Israelites, Solomon built his temple with taxes, tribute, and forced labor.

This decline continued after the time of Solomon. God’s glory left the temple before its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BC, which the prophet Ezekiel narrates in a vision (Ezek 8-11). The temple was rebuilt 70 years later, and 500 years after that Herod the Great expanded it in a grandiose manner. But Hays argues that God was not present in the temple in the years between the departure of God’s glory and the arrival of Jesus. This is why, for example, the Roman general Pompey could enter the holy of holies in 63 BC and suffer no ill effects. Although God returned to the temple in Jesus, the days of the physical temple were numbered when the religious leaders of his day rejected him. The Romans destroyed the second temple in AD 70, but even before then Jesus and his followers had begun speaking about God’s dwelling place in a new way. Jesus had spoken of himself as the temple, and his followers like Paul spoke of the church as a temple in which God dwelled by his Spirit. The latter chapters of Revelation look forward to a time when God’s presence will dwell more openly among his people, and there will be no need for a physical temple (Rev 21:22).

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The southern steps, where the main entrance to the temple complex was in Jesus’ day

The Temple and the Tabernacle contains numerous full-color photographs of architectural sites and artifacts, as well as artistic renderings of what the temple and tabernacle looked like. The only negative thing I can say about this book is that I would have preferred a hardcover. I know that it would have driven up the price, but it has quality paper and full-color photos; it would have been nice to package them in something more sturdy than a paperback.

With that small critique aside, the content of this book is first-rate. It teaches readers about the physical aspects of God’s dwelling places in the Bible, educating us in their symbolism. But it does more than that. It teaches about the character of God, pointing out his persistent desire to dwell among his people in spite of their rebellion against him.

Note: Thanks to Baker Books for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.