13 November 2015

Back to the Book Pile.

I know; books aren’t everyone’s thing. That’s why, according to Christ Almighty’s stats, last month’s Book Pile article was the least-read thing last month. The public has spoken, and it’s a resounding, “Good Lord, Leslie, you write 1,000-word essays and you expect me to throw books on that? What’re you trying to do, kill me?” Followed by a quick Netflix binge, just to get the foul taste out of their system. (Shudder.) Reading. Ugh.

But for the tiny minority who wants to know what literature I’m plowing through, ’cause they figure it’ll give them some insight into my odd little mind, here y’go. Glean what you can from it. This month:

Next month, more books. ’Cause I’m gonna keep reading… and gonna keep ranting about the stuff I read, whether it’s the obligatory book-review stuff, or the things I read for fun. Yeah, I read theology books for fun. It’s how I roll.

The Last Days According to Jesus: When Did Jesus Say He Would Return?
By R.C. Sproul.
272 pages, ¾-in. paperback. Baker Books: 1998. (Second edition, 2015.)

The Last Days According to Jesus.

Regular readers know I grew up hearing the John Nelson Darby version of the End Times—the one you find in the Left Behind novels and on John Hagee’s giant timeline posters. Thing is, that interpretation of the End is largely based on cessationism (i.e. God turned off the miracles till the End) and futurism (i.e. no End Times prophecy gets fulfilled till the End). I stopped believing in both those things once I became a Pentecostal. So I couldn’t very well cling to the same hugely flawed End Times theory… even though an irritating number of my fellow Pentecostals still do, despite how contrary its basis is to our beliefs.

So now what? Well, I hoped to find an answer in seminary. But none of the professors bothered to teach an End Times class during my time there, nor in the several years before and after. Didn’t have the guts, I suppose. The subject tends to attract every conspiracy-minded nutjob in the church, as I discovered years later when I taught on the subject. Yikes.

Guess I had to teach myself. So two years after I graduated, I picked the brain of a fellow church member who’d attended a different seminary. He lent me the contents of his End Times library, which he promised presented more than one point of view. Well yeah; most of ’em were from entirely different Darbyists. It’s like asking four different conspiracy theorists to describe the John F. Kennedy assassination: They won’t exactly match, but they’ll be mighty similar nonetheless.

One of the rare standouts was R.C. Sproul’s The Last Days According to Jesus. This was my introduction to preterism, the view that some End Times prophecies, if not all, were fulfilled already. ’Cause the writers of scripture said these events were happening soon, which in their minds was within the next few years after they wrote ’em down. And considering the wild and world-changing events of the first century, it looks like many of ’em actually did.

Not all; obviously Jesus hasn’t returned yet. It’s why Sproul considers himself a partial preterist… as, really, does every preterist but the hardcore cases who insist Jesus sorta kinda did return in the first century, in some weird secret spiritual way.

Still, this was the first End Times book I’d ever read that seriously examined what the scriptures said, and used proper grammatical/historical methods to interpret them. As opposed to the more common Hal Lindsey method of bad End Times interpretation: Read current events into biblical visions, then freak out and scare everybody into buying your books.

If you’re not sold on preterism, this book will annoy you, ’cause Sproul doesn’t examine any other view. It’s entirely about which of many first-century historical events fulfill the End Times prophecies. Or which events in those prophecies, if any, are in our future?—since the rest of them already happened.

A great deal of this book is based on J. Stuart Russell’s The Parousia: A Critical Inquiry Into the New Testament Doctrine of Our Lord’s Second Coming. No, you couldn’t have just read that book instead, ’cause Sproul isn’t as fully-preterist as Russell. Obviously not every prophecy has been fulfilled yet, and Sproul uses his common sense to sort between what has and hasn’t yet. You may disagree with his conclusions; I certainly do in some parts. But I agree with Sproul more often than not.

So when did Jesus say he’d return? Spoiler: Soon. Rv 22.12

Did God Kill Jesus?: Searching for Love in History’s Most Famous Execution.
By Tony Jones.
309 pages, ⅔-in. paperback. HarperCollins: 2015.

Did God Kill Jesus?

Three years ago Tony Jones wrote A Better Atonement to discuss the very same issue: He was greatly bothered by the most popular Protestant interpretation of Jesus’s atonement, his cleansing humanity from all sin with his blood. 1Jn 1.7 That theory is known as penal substitution: Sin causes death, so every human deserves to die, but Jesus took our sins, died in our place, and now our sin-debt is paid for.

Penal substitution is the story I grew up with too. I’m okay with the substitution part of the idea, but not the penal part; I object to the way too many dark Christians present it. According to them, sin doesn’t just cause death, but outrages and enrages God. Jesus didn’t just die in our place, but God wrathfully took out his vengeance upon him. Makes God sound like a bloodthirsty madman. This, I can’t agree with, for one obvious reason: Jesus is God. And God loved the world so much he sent his Son, Jn 3.16 not hated sin so much he had to kill somebody, and Jesus took our place lest God kill us.

Jones likewise disagrees with the vengeful-God scenario. God can’t be a raging loon. God is love. 1Jn 4.16 Whatever manner Jesus died for our sins, it has to be a loving method, done for loving reasons. Otherwise we’ve interpreted God wholly wrong.

Penal substitution isn’t the only theory Christians cooked up for how atonement works. In his book, Jones digs through all the explanations he could find. He critiques them, then presents the view he thinks is a winner. Well, sorta presents the view. Not as a system or method, but as a mindset. I won’t spoil his ending; I’ll just say I read it, thought, “Wait… did he explain his theory?” and went back and read that chapter again, and only then did I realize he really did. But it kinda sneaks up on you.

Imagine Heaven: Near-Death Experiences, God's Promises, and the Exhilarating Future That Awaits You
By John Burke; forward by Don Piper.
353 pages, 910-in. paperback. Baker Books: 2015.

Imagine Heaven.

I don’t believe near-death experiences are revelation. I look at the visions people have when they’re clinically dead as precisely that: Visions.

I grant you some of the visions legitimately come from God. When somebody comes back impossibly knowing details about unknown dead relatives, or being able to explain in detail the things that happened as the doctors were trying to bring ’em back, that’s some word-of-knowledge stuff right there. When they “meet Jesus,” and this Jesus has messages for them which bear good fruit, I’m not gonna say that’s not Jesus. Even if they do claim their images of Jesus look exactly like Bruce Marchiano. Or Kenny Loggins. Whatever.

But some of these experiences are obviously the product of the person’s wishful thinking. Because near-death visions are too inconsistent—with one another, with the scriptures, with the near-death experiences of Buddhists and Muslims who saw their versions of the afterlife. They’re not like the gospels, which present four valid perspectives of the same thing. John Burke claims they are, and tries to dismiss the wide discrepancies as transcendent stuff the visionaries can’t describe in mere human languages. See, that’s the entire premise of Imagine Heaven: These folks really did experience the afterlife and God, and their recollections do inform us what heaven is like. And Burke can prove it. With scripture!


The book was meant to convince skeptics like me. Supposedly Burke was just as skeptical, but after reading a ton of near-death experiences from books and the Internet, he’s not anymore. Sounds a lot like the way my Christian friends were convinced to believe in the healing power of essential oils. Burke’s sold, though. Why, this one person’s vision sounds exactly like popular Christian culture imagines heaven to be! And this other person’s vision might be exactly what the apostles and prophets meant when they wrote what they did.

Except not. Burke takes a lot of these verses out of context. I know he doesn’t really mean to, but man alive, his hypothesis isn’t more important than the original intent of the scriptures’ authors. No respect for biblical context is a particular peeve of mine. That’s why this book bugs me.

Y’see, the current American Evangelical picture of heaven, which Burke describes time and again, is not how Christians have described the afterlife throughout Christian history. As anyone who’s read The Divine Comedy could tell you. The scriptures are meant to challenge popular culture, not conform to it, and it feels way too often like it’s what Burke is doing throughout the book.

If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis: Exploring the Ideas of C. S. Lewis on the Meaning of Life
By Alister McGrath.
256 pages, 1-in. hardback. Tyndale House: 2014.

If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis.

Last year I read Alister McGrath's biography of C.S. Lewis, which I thought quite well done. To be fair I was comparing it a lot to the previous Lewis biography I’d read, George Sayer’s Jack, which creeped me out. For reasons which’ll turn into a large digressive tangent, so I’ll not go there today.

This year I stumbled across McGrath’s If I Had Lunch with C.S. Lewis—which turns out to be another biography of Lewis. And no, it’s not part two of a multi-volume biography, like Edmund Morris did with Theodore Roosevelt. Instead it comes at Lewis from another angle: Imagine going to lunch—really, a dozen lunches—with Professor Lewis, and asking him questions about his life and thought. And not have him dismiss us as impertinent interviewers who just wanna psychoanalyze him.

It’s an interesting premise. But it sure doesn’t feel like a buncha lunches. More accurately it feels like McGrath talking about his favorite Lewis books, and psychoanalyzing the author in the very same way those impertinent interviewers would. Not that there’s anything wrong with the idea. Our life experiences do influence our thinking, which is why biographies are so useful. How were Lewis’s friendships reflected in The Four Loves? How was his childhood and beliefs about mythology reflected in the Narnia novels? How’d his experiences in pain and loss produce The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed? How’d his academic career influence The Abolition of Man? (Have you even read The Abolition of Man? You oughta.)

It skims Lewis’s body of work, but skips a few books which I think are relevant. McGrath speculates what Lewis thought of heaven, yet for some reason never touches his vision of heaven in The Great Divorce, which is a profound omission. McGrath also skimmed Lewis’s academic work, yet I consider The Discarded Image mandatory reading for anyone who discusses the Christian worldview. Still, the book poses the question “if I had lunch with Lewis,” so of course at such a lunch McGrath is gonna fanboy all over his favorite works, not mine.

Some folks, like me, love biographies. Others just aren’t gonna read them. They were forced to do a book report in high school on a biography, found one that was really dry and boring and academic, and it turned ’em off towards biographies for all time. But they might read a book about having lunch, and by the time they realize this isn’t a book of witty Samuel Johnson-style conversations over some deep-fried English food and room-temperature beer, they’ll have a little bit of biography and a solid introduction to Lewisanian thinking in their brains. Not a bad idea.