The Hum of Angels (Review)

When you hear the word “angels,” what do you think of? Some spiritual being that accompanies people as their guardian? The chubby cherubs from that painting by Raphael? Or do you dismiss them as credulous superstition, the product of overactive imaginations, and leave it at that?

9781601426314New Testament scholar Scot McKnight has set out to clear up what exactly angels are in a book published last month called The Hum of Angels. The “hum” of the title comes from a story that he tells at the outset about a visit to a pet store. He was telling the attendant that there were no hummingbirds where he lived, but the attendant told him there most definitely were. You just had to have the eyes to see them. McKnight went home determined to attune his eyes to see hummingbirds, and now he sees them everywhere.

In that way, angels are like hummingbirds. They are all around us, McKnight says, but we need to train our eyes to see them. He doesn’t set out in this book to prove to the skeptical that a spiritual realm exists. Rather, his audience is people who already believe in something beyond the physical but aren’t so sure whether angels exist or what they are. “If you believe in God,” he says, “you also believe in angels.”

But how do you know what to believe about angels? You could listen to stories about angel encounters, but without some kind of other foundation for identifying what angels are it won’t be clear whether some of these experiences really involve angels or not. As a Christian (and a biblical scholar at that), it isn’t surprising that McKnight turns to the Bible to find out what it teaches about angels. And the Bible has a lot to say about angels. McKnight puts the core of what the Bible has to say about angels this way:

God is love.

All that God does is loving.

God sends angels to us because God loves us.

Love is a rugged commitment to be With,

to be For us so that we can

progress Unto Christlikeness.

Angels are sent to express God’s love

by being God’s presence with us,

by being God’s presence for us, and

to lead us into the redemption of Christlikeness.

He spends most of the book unpacking what the parts of this statement (which he repeats, with some variations, in almost every chapter) say about what angels are. I won’t get into the specifics, but here are a few takeaways from the book:

The Bible nowhere teaches that people become angels when they die. According to McKnight, “the model for what we will be like after death is not angels but the resurrection body of Jesus—who, again, did not become an angel” (20). Just in case it needs to be said, the moment when a friend says on Facebook about a departed loved one that “heaven gained an angel” is NOT THE TIME to instruct them on this point. But in light of how widespread this misunderstanding is, I do think churches ought to make a point of teaching on it.

Not all angelic visitations are from good angels. Angels always point to God, and “angels that don’t summon us to see God are not doing God’s work” (27). Angels are messengers of God’s love, and God’s love is more than the presence of positive feelings about someone. Love, McKnight says, “has a goal.” It “is not tolerance or deciding to put up with one another or doing our best to get along. Love, if it is Christian love, leads to mutual growth into Christlikeness” (42). Angels who do not point us toward God in Christ are what the Bible calls demons, or evil spirits. So modern-day “angel experiences that do not draw us to God’s Son must be held either loosely or not at all” (125).

The Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament is not a pre-incarnate Jesus. Now, not all biblical scholars agree about this, so this shouldn’t be asserted dogmatically. But after looking at several passages, McKnight comes down on the side of believing that while “God becomes present to us in special ways in the Angel of the Lord” (85), that is not the same as saying it is the pre-incarnate Jesus.

The Bible isn’t clear about whether people have guardian angels assigned to them. It is clear that God does send angels to protect and guard and guide us, but it stops short of saying that each person has an assigned guardian angel. Basil the Great and John Chrysostom believed in guardian angels, though, if their opinion matters to you.

They probably don’t look like the chainsmoking angel on the cover of the classic Van Halen album 1984. Okay, McKnight actually doesn’t address this. But I think it’s a pretty safe assumption.Van_Halen_-_1984

Should you read this book? There are many books about angels out there, and I honestly haven’t read many of them so I don’t know how it compares to others. But if you are curious about angels, and what the Bible says about angels is an important consideration for you (and if you are a Christian, it should), then you may find this book helpful.

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


Book Review: The King Jesus Gospel

The problem that Scot McKnight’s The King Jesus Gospel is intended to address is that the way evangelical Christians preach the gospel doesn’t often lead to lives characterized by discipleship. Evangelical evangelism has been geared toward getting people to make decisions (“accepting Jesus into your heart”), but “we lose at least 50 percent of those who make decisions” (20, italics in original). People become “saved,” but they don’t become disciples of Jesus. Clearly, the evangelical understanding of gospel and evangelism is not leading to changed lives as often as it should.

After calling attention to this problem, McKnight asks, “What is the gospel?” He turns to the New Testament–Paul, Jesus, and Peter–and concludes that the gospel “is declaring the story of Israel as resolved in the Story of Jesus” (79). He argues that Christianity left behind the emphasis on story in favor of an emphasis on salvation during the Reformation; the story-formed Creeds were de-emphasized in favor of confessions (McKnight mentions in particular the Augsburg Confession and the Genevan Confession). He takes pains to point out that the Reformers can’t be blamed for the “salvation culture” that we’ve ended up with. However, the seeds of a salvation culture were planted during the Reformation’s shift from an emphasis on story (of which salvation is a part) to an emphasis on salvation (without the rest of the gospel).

McKnight closes the book with five things that are necessary to regaining a gospel culture:

1. We have to become people of the Story (153).
2. We need to immerse ourselves even more into the Story of Jesus (153).
3. We need to see how the apostles’ writings take the Story of Israel and the Story of Jesus into the next generation and into a different culture, and how this generation led all the way to our generation (155).
4. We need to counter the stories that bracket and reframe our story (157).
5. We need to embrace this story so that we are saved and can be transformed by the gospel story (158).

I would recommend this book, but not on its own. It needs other books to flesh out the full picture. It does a good job of arguing that evangelical understandings of the gospel have led to a salvation culture rather than a gospel culture, but doesn’t go into detail about what a gospel culture looks like when it is lived out (McKnight himself has written a book on that subject called One.Life: Jesus Calls, We Follow). Also, and this is not really a fault of the book, but I am concerned that as a result of McKnight’s argument there may be people who get an impression that the gospel is “either/or”: that is, it is either the story of Jesus fulfilling the story of Israel, or it is salvation. In reality, salvation is part of the gospel. McKnight makes that point (88), and I think it is very important that we do not lose sight of it.

Book Review: Fasting (The Ancient Practices)

This is the second book that I have read from Thomas Nelson’s Ancient Practices series (the first was The Liturgical Year), and I have enjoyed both of them. The purpose of the series is to encourage Christians to incorporate ancient spiritual disciplines like sabbath, tithing or fixed-hour prayer into their lives. All of these have a rich tradition from Judaism and the early church, and modern-day Christians could benefit from having a greater exposure to them.

McKnight stresses this definition of fasting: it is the “natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life” (166). These sacred moments are sin, death, impending disaster or disaster itself, the lack of holiness and love and compassion, the impoverishment of others, the sacred presence of God, and the absence of justice, peace, and love (167). He also devotes chapters to the benefits of fasting, the problems that can be encountered in fasting, and the physical effects of fasting.

What I liked the most about this book was the stress on fasting as a response. In McKnight’s opinion (and mine), too much fasting has had an instrumental focus; that is, it is undertaken as an instrument to get what we want. He claims that the biblical focus in fasting is an “A prompts B which sometimes leads to C,” where A is the sacred moment, B is fasting, and C is a result. Fasting should be undertaken as a response rather than an instrument. If it is done this way, it can be more beneficial and less disappointing.

Another thing I liked about this book was that McKnight took pains to show that fasting is a biblical practice. He does quote extensively from various figures in church history, from the Church Fathers to Luther to Calvin to Wesley, but he also made sure his readers knew that fasting is not merely the accretion of tradition.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

August 2009: Books Read

1. Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving From Affluence to Generosity by Ronald J. Sider. This book came out in 1977, and is regarded by many as a “classic.” The version I read was the fifth edition, updated in (I think) 2004.

The book comes in four parts: the first part depicts the state of the world today, in which there are billions of poor people and millions of affluent people who could help. The second part shares a biblical perspective on poverty and possessions. The third attempts to answer the question, “What causes poverty?” And the fourth shares practical steps that Christians in rich countries can follow to both simplify their own lives and make wise contributions to making the world a more just and fair place.

This was a challenging book for me. Although I don’t think of myself as affluent, I certainly live in an affluent part of the world and enjoy many more conveniences than those people who have to live on a few dollars a day. The main things that I got out of this book were 1) practical tips on living more simply, while simultaneously fostering community, and 2) a greater understanding of the economics of poverty. Lack of understanding the latter, I think, is a major obstacle that keeps Christians from helping the poor. We think that the foreign aid rich countries give to poor countries is a lot, but most actually give less than 1 percent of their GNP in foreign aid – and much of this aid is tied to their own foreign policy interests. We think that this aid is more than enough to make up for inequalities caused by things like tariffs and the abusive practices of some multi-national corporations, but it is not. This is definitely a book that all Christians in wealthy nations should read. Even if not everyone agrees with Sider’s practical proposals, the problem of poverty is something that all Christians – if they are reading their Bibles and are genuinely seeking to be more like Jesus – are called to address.

2. Praying With the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today by Scot McKnight. McKnight was raised in a Christian tradition that had no use for daily set prayers, but as an adult he has come to appreciate and even love them. Like McKnight, I was raised in a Christian tradition that did not have set prayers (though we did recite the Lord’s Prayer and the “Gloria Patri” every week in church). As an adult, I have been more and more interested in the practice of daily prayer times as I have come to understand how deep they go in the Christian tradition.

McKnight’s book is a quick read and it comes in two parts: the first deals with Jesus’ own use of set prayers (Jews of his time recited prayers daily, and what we call the “Lord’s Prayer” is Jesus teaching his disciples something to pray every day). The second part serves as an introduction to four prayer books: the Orthodox Manual of Eastern Orthodox Prayers, the Roman Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and Phyllis Tickle’s modern ecumenical Divine Hours. I would recommend this book to anyone who, like me, wants to have a richer prayer life and who is less familiar with the tradition of set prayers and how to use a prayer book.

3. The Ascent of a Leader: How Ordinary Relationships Develop Extraordinary Character and Influence by Bill Thrall, Bruce McNichol and Ken McElrath. Throughout my time in graduate school, I felt that it was more important to spend my time reading deep theology books than leadership books. But as I grow closer to (hopefully) taking on more leadership in a church setting, and as I become more aware that it is rarely bad theology that gets pastors kicked out of churches, I’ve become more interested in leadership literature. Earlier this year I read Now, Discover Your Strengths, and I’ve just recently completed The Ascent of a Leader.

The “ascent” the authors talk about is climbing the “character ladder” rather than the “capacity ladder.” The capacity ladder is what leaders are able to do on their own, and it comes with four rungs: discover what I can do, develop my capacities, acquire a title or position and attain individual potential. Climbing up just this kind of ladder can lead to loneliness and failure. Rather, spurred on by environments and relationships of grace, leaders should climb the character ladder: trust God and others, choose vulnerability, align with truth, pay the price and discover destiny. Once you start to climb the character ladder, you can integrate it with the capacity ladder, “leveraging our capacities far beyond what we could have accomplished without character” (143). I found this book to be a good reminder of how important character is in everyday life.

4. The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight. I’d heard a lot about this little book in recent months, and when I was at the Covenant’s annual meeting in Portland this summer, I was able to pick it up. The title comes from a time when McKnight was sitting in his backyard and saw a strange blue bird that he had never seen before. Turns out it was a parakeet that had escaped from someone’s cage. The “blue parakeets” of the title are “oddities in the Bible that we prefer to cage and silence rather than to permit into our sacred mental gardens” (208). Issues like Sabbath, foot washing, tithing and women in ministry are blue parakeets that many of us don’t quite know what to do with: do we try to retrieve all practices from biblical times? Do we try to retrieve only what we can salvage for our day and our culture? Do we read through tradition? Or do we read in dialogue with tradition? McKnight counsels us to read the Bible as a Story. We should read this Story in order to get to know the God behind it. And we should discern through God’s Spirit and in the context of our community how to continue living that Story in our own day. McKnight provides an example of discernment in the issue of women in ministry.

This is a wonderful book, and I hope it finds its way into the hands of lots of people. All Christians interpret the Bible in some way, but there are so few books for a popular audience on how to best interpret it. As a result, many are left thinking that the way their pastor or their immediate community interprets the Bible is self-evidently the only way. This is unfortunate.

This isn’t a perfect book, by any means. Since it is short, and meant for a popular audience, McKnight ends up dealing with some complicated issues very briefly. As a result, I doubt whether he will convince many people who, for example, are thoroughly antagonistic to women’s ordination. But since the book is for a popular audience, and no popular book can deal with these issues in great detail, I still highly recommend it.

5. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. I have never seen the movie version of this book, and I was surprised on reading it to find that Scarlett O’Hara is one of the more malevolent and despicable literary protagonists I have ever read about – and I have read Anna Karenina. Like Anna Karenina, the real hero of this book is someone besides the main character: in Anna Karenina it is Levin (who, I’ve heard, Tolstoy modeled after himself), and in Gone With the Wind, it seems to me that the heroine is really Melanie Wilkes. But in both books, the intended hero is far overshadowed by protagonists who are such finely written, true-to-life characters that, despite their badness, they steal the show. It’s a great credit to Margaret Mitchell that she could create such a believable character as Scarlett – even if she is so believable that I genuinely didn’t like her.

6. The Theology of the Book of Revelation by Richard Bauckham. We have been reading through the book of Revelation in our Bible study, and I have taken it on myself to do background reading and lead the discussion. Part of that background reading has been this fantastic little book (it’s only 169 pages). Bauckham, who retired a couple of years ago from being Professor of New Testament at St. Andrews, digs into the theological content of Revelation and finds that it has perhaps the most developed trinitarian theology in the New Testament. He doesn’t spend a lot of time criticizing various interpretations of the book, but it’s clear that he doesn’t think futurist or historicist interpretations do a very good job of making sense of the imagery in the book. This is a dense little book, and it doesn’t move chronologically through the text. For those who want to read it, I’d recommend reading Revelation first to get a sense of it, then read this book, and then go back and read Revelation again with new eyes.