Tag Archives: universalism

Book Review: A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, by John Pavlovitz

A Bigger TableIn the introduction to A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community, John Pavlovitz writes, “This book is about humanity, about the one flawed family that we belong to and the singular, odd, staggeringly beautiful story we all share. It’s about trying to excavate those priceless truths from beneath the layers of far less important things that we’ve pile on top of them since we’ve been here. It’s about jettisoning everything in and around us that would shrink our tables.” (xiii) What it’s really about is tolerance and inclusion of LGBTQ in Christ’s church with no reservation. While I concur with Pavlovitz that we need to love people and be willing to sit at the same table, his use of Scripture and Jesus’ example leads the reader to believe that exclusivity is the only sin, that we are only unwilling to allow people into the Christ’s church because of our prejudices and biased upbringings, and that Jesus was a happy hippy who had no agenda and didn’t try to change people (except to make them tolerant of all other people). Much of this stems from some personal and unpleasant experiences with the church, with which many of us can certainly relate and understand. He rightly pushes back against business- and attraction-model churches, but argues for something that may appear virtually and functionally the same to those on the outside (108–110). Much of what Pavlovitz believes and writes is based on emotion what has felt good to him (even if they be difficult to deal with) rather than from a good wrestling with the whole of the Bible.

While likely intended to be a book about mercy and grace, it is really about loving people as they are and leaving them that way “because we are full image bearers of God and beloved as we are, without alteration.” (164) After reading Pavlovitz’s own words about his upbringing and current faith, I am not convinced he believes he has ever sinned (164–165) or that there is such a thing as sin (he encourages the reader to see suffering instead of sin [124], but this ought to be both-and, not either-or). Heaven on earth for him is simply diversity for the sake of diversity with open conversations where there is absolutely no pushback or accountability—where churches people can curse and say anything from pulpits like they do at his because that’s “real.” (81–82) While I’m certain there are many who will find this and the embedded universalism appealing, it’s not the image of ultimate redemption I find in Scripture.

 

*I received a temporary digital copy for review from Westminster John Knox Press via NetGalley.

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Book Review: Heaven on Earth: God’s Call to Community in the Book of Revelation, by Michael Battle

Heaven on EarthIn Heaven on Earth: God’s Call to Community in the Book of Revelation, Michael Battle unconvincingly attempts to harmonize the messages of Origen, Desmond Tutu, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others, with what he refers to as John’s “speculative” (105) vision of heaven and earth in the book of Revelation. Ultimately, this is a book about universalism and a realized eschatology (60, 82) living in community in an utterly selfless way to create heaven on earth. Battle argues that heaven is not some distant place in regards to space and/or time, but is in his words “an uninhibited God” (7), “where God is present” (19), and “the joy derived from interdependent persons who adore someone greater than themselves—God” (21); however, demonstrating the inconsistency found in his work, he also says it is a place we “go to” (171) that will be “everyone’s final destination and reward” (31). While he often redefines heaven in such a way that fits his argument on any given page with no regard to inconsistencies, taken in its totality, it appears that Tutu’s Ubuntu theology, “A person is a person through other persons” (135), is really Battle’s epitome of heaven on earth. (So enamored with Tutu, Battle writes as if South Africa’s example is going to save the world, all while ignoring rampant racism therein with a flip-flop of its past racial hierarchy.)

 

ORIGEN AND UNIVERSALISM:

Heavily influenced by and in agreement with Origen’s speculation about heaven and the origin of creation found in Origen’s De principiis, Battle believes everyone always existed with God before creation and that “God has given us earth to practice heaven again” (88) after having fallen from heaven due to selfish desires—earth, according to Orgien, was basically created because there needed to be a place to land from the fall. Battle continues, “On earth we are given a soul which is the ‘sliding middle’ in which choices are made. If we wish to attain transformation back into spirit, the soul must choose communal existence as opposed to individualism” (88). Yes, we must choose community, but not for the reasons found in Origen’s speculations. Whereas Battle thinks, “[Origen’s] genius is to show us that heaven can only be found in community” (90), I think it’s more appropriate to say that heaven exists as community—it certainly may not be found in just any community.

A further point of inconsistency: If this were true—if earth was created as temporary place to practicing being better in order to get back to a state of unity with God in heaven, thereafter eliminating the need and place of earth—I’m not sure why Battle found it necessary to include the following akin to ying yang philosophy: “heaven is unintelligible apart from earth; and earth is unintelligible apart from heaven. In other words, we need both of them to know each of them” (111–112). Perhaps he finds this to be a temporary necessity?

In an endnote from chapter eleven, Battle writes, “Origen uses an illustration of a student of geometry for hierarchy of souls (Princ. 1.4.1). Death does not finally decide the fate of the soul, which may turn into a demon or an angel. This ascent and descent goes on uninterruptedly until the final apokatastasis when all creatures, even the devil, will be saved” (187, n.7). Yes, the devil/Satan being saved is the only way Origen’s speculation could possibly come to fruition, and it appears Battle believes the devil will be saved. This is, however, an enormous monkey wrench even for Origen. While De principiis certainly implies the possibility, Origen never explicitly states that Satan will be saved. When pressed, Origen only goes so far as to concede its possibility while also stating, “Even one who has lost his mind cannot say this” (see Jennifer L. Heckart, “Sympathy for the Devil? Origen and the End,” Union Seminary Quarterly Review 60, no. 3–4. 2007: 57). Pressing further, Lisa R. Holliday writes, “By considering the devil within Origen’s stance on volition and the nature of the soul, it is clear that while the devil technically retained the possibility of salvation, he did not wish to attain it, due to the degree to which he pursued his own desires” (Holliday, “Will Satan Be Saved?: Reconsidering Origen’s Theory of Volition in Peri Archon,” Vigiliae Christianae 63, no. 1. 2009:1). The fact that even the Catholic Church deemed Origen a heretic for centuries is not mentioned in Battle’s argument, nor are the weightier points of De principiis that would likely cause many readers to stop reading Battle’s work altogether. While later absolved, Origen’s teachings on this subject were not.

It is my opinion that Origen did not really believe that Satan would be saved, and found himself in quite a quandary: to fully admit Satan could be saved would contradict Scripture and would have Origin deemed a heretic, which, as already noted, eventually happened posthumously simply based on his implications; but to flatly deny the possibility of Satan’s restoration would nullify his entire argument in De principiis. (Scholars often find themselves with this sort of conflict when confronted with compelling evidence contrary to their work, as if being academically honest and changing one’s position thereby negates one’s position and ability in scholarship. To be closed to correction and change is not very academic or scholarly at all, but the academy is strange and defensive thing.)

I hope Battle would be open to criticism and evidentiary change, but the following example of how Battle simply dismisses pushback with, “In any event,” leaves me doubtful:

Realized eschatology has gained some currency among biblical scholars in the United States. These tend to base their arguments, again, on the reordering of the Gospel material which then can be made to show that Jesus was a sort of Cynic teacher of social reform. My view, however, is based more on the notion that I attribute to Care Waynick, the Episcopal bishop of Indianapolis. Bishop Waynick heard that I was writing this book and offered me this insight: “[Jesus] said repeatedly that ‘the kingdom is among you.’” A critic could easily say that neither the bishop nor I seem to be aware that the passage we are referring to is unique in the Synoptic Gospels, occurring only in Luke 17:20–21: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom is among you [within you; entos hymon].” This passage has been much controverted, especially in the context of saying that Luke constructed his own version of realized eschatology. The sharp criticism comes: If one were to assume that Jesus made the statement in the passage and meant by it that there was no future coming of the kingdom, then how is the material that follows (Luke 17:22–37) to be read? Did Jesus also make the other, numerous, futuristic statements in the Gospels?

In any event, I am one of those people like Bishop Waynick who believe that Jesus did more than say the kingdom is among us—he actually came among us. In addition, not only did he come among us, he is still here. Those like Bishop Waynick and myself practice this presence regularly through the Eucharist and caring for the least in society. (82)

 

KINGDOM LIVING (HEAVEN ON EARTH?):

Battle rightly encourages his reader to be what many of us simply refer to as active citizens of the kingdom of God. Though not yet in its fullness, we are called to be witnesses to a real kingdom right now, not to coop our Christian identity into nationalism or focus merely on our personal salvation as if it could be disconnected from love of neighbor, which is very much a part of being a disciple of Jesus and kingdom citizen. He points out some proper concerns, such as, “We seem more eager to argue over passages of Scripture pertaining to sexuality than passages such as Matthew 5:38–45” (62), but he does tend to focus on communal care and acceptance of all people as they are to the exclusion of anything else we may find entailing a God-honoring life. The only sins Battle appears to be concerned with are racism, violence, and concern for oneself (individualism) to the exclusion of others. He certainly misconstrues the reason Jesus hung out with “sinners”:

Do not seek your personal salvation—in doing that we end up like those religious hypocrites that irritated Jesus the most. In fact, Jesus doesn’t get angry at those who seem to be most worthy of our anger—those who embezzle money (the tax collectors) and those who commit sexual sin (prostitutes and adulterers). These were Jesus’ best friends; he required from them conversion and fidelity. He became angry at the religious folk who sought only their personal salvation. (151)

Jesus wasn’t in the business of finding people deep in sin, becoming best buds, and telling them it’s all okay; he was changed lives by pointing them back to the way God intended us to be because he loved them. Nor was Jesus angry with people who wanted to be “personally saved,” though he did chastise folks for ignoring and oppressing others for selfish gain. To not be concerned about one’s relationship with God is, in fact, not honoring God.

 

CONCLUSION:

All in all, this book does not have as much to do with community in the book of Revelation as it does with an overly repetitive, argumentative soapbox against white, Western, fundamental, individualistic, liberal and conservative straw men with no introspection or self-criticism to be found. Here Battle should have listened to his own words: “Labels of conservative and liberal theologies only obfuscate arguments” (36). While reading this work was quite tedious and not at all recommended, I hope what I have read is simply the result of much frustration over the lack of love for one’s neighbor Battle sees and experiences on earth as it is now.

 

*I received a temporary digital copy for review from Westminster John Knox Press via NetGalley.

Book Review: Four Views on Hell, Second Edition, by Preston Sprinkle, general editor

Four Views on HellZondervan updated its Counterpoints series with a second edition of Four Views on Hell with new contributors. All contributors approach their doctrine of hell from a Protestant (non-Catholic and (non-Eastern Orthodox) and evangelical (definitions may vary), believing that hell is an actual place but differing on what they believe happens therein. The book follows the common form of the Counterpoints series: an introduction by the general editors, a major essay on one view followed by relatively shorter essay responses by all other contributors, subsequent essays and responses in the same manner, and a conclusion, again by the editor. Contributions and respective authors include the following:

  • Introduction: Preston Sprinkle
  • Eternal Conscious Torment (often referred to as the “traditionalist view”): Denny Burk
  • Terminal Punishment (the contributor’s preferred terminology for the more commonly known “annihilationism” or “conditional immortality”): John G. Stackhouse, Jr.
  • A Universalist View (a universalist view in that the contributor believes all are saved through Jesus, as opposed to the more widely used and understood definition of “all roads lead to heaven/God”): Robin A. Parry
  • Hell and Purgatory (not in the Roman Catholic sense, and is questionably included given its focus on an in between state of earth and heaven with no focus on hell, which assumes and is in agreement with the perspective of eternal conscious torment above): Jerry L. Walls
  • Conclusion: Preston Sprinkle

Atypical to what I have generally found from editors in the Counterpoints series, Sprinkle offers a fair and generous introduction and critique of each of the contributor’s essays and the book as a whole rather than simply saying something akin to, “Here they are, and they contributed,” nor does he offer his personal thoughts in hopes to sway the reader one way or the other, encouraging the reader to study, reason, and wrestle on his or her own. Though I do not agree that “each provided solid scriptural and theological arguments for his view” (204; Sprinkle is more generous than I), each of the contributions are indicative of a typical representation of each view given the space and time allowed, and in as much contribute to this book’s helpfulness as a helpful survey resource. With that recommendation and Sprinkle’s already helpful responses included in the text, I find it unnecessary for me to respond to each contribution and instead encourage one to read the book if at all interested in a survey of prevailing views on the subject hell.

 

For those interested, my own studies have convinced me of annihilationism and conditional immortality, for which a thorough and convincing argument has already been articulated in The Fire That Consumes: A Biblical and Historical Study of the Doctrine of Final Punishment, Third Edition by Edward William Fudge.

 

*I received a temporary digital copy for review from Zondervan via NetGalley.

Book Review: Outlaw Christian: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the “Rules”, by Jacqueline A. Bussie

Outlaw ChristianLutheran professor Jacqueline A. Bussie’s Outlaw Christian: Finding Authentic Faith by Breaking the “Rules” reads like an infomercial for the purported latest and greatest form of “just be you” faith and new club: Outlaw Christians. She writes:

Outlaw Christianity: (noun)

  1. a new, life-giving faith for those who ache for a more authentic relationship with God and other people by no longer having to hide their doubt, anger, grief, scars, or questions
  2. an honest, outside-the-law faith for those seeking a hope that really speaks to the world’s hurt (p.xi)

Bussie rightly pushes back against the notions many have of not being able to be really in honest in some Christian circles, having to hide anger, doubt, and scars in the midst of real pain and uncertainty; however, the path taken in this book is not one to recommend. In order to travel this path, one must, as Bussie has, redefine a number of terms to create this new faith club. Rather than revere the Almighty, Bussie encourages the reader to bring God down to a human level as she does, stating that God learns and grows with us, comparing her relationship with him to an angry married couple in which both sides are flawed people just trying to figure things out and get along.

I concur that we can learn from people not like us, even other religions; but if it is not ultimately God honoring and glorifying then it is of no use. However, Bussie seems to take this a bit further down an apparent path of universalism when she writes about our “brothers and sisters of other religions” (137) and redefines sin by stating, “To keep things simple as well as practical and concrete, I now define evil and sin as anything we say, do, or believe (or fail to say, do, or believe) that robs us of our humanity or the earth of its dignity” (129). The emphasis of this book is certainly on oneself and being honest about one’s humanity, reveling in doubt and sharing each other’s pain and suffering, for which Bussie claims there is no other meaning than that it is shared. She reminds her reader that something isn’t sin if it’s honest; so be honest because that’s authentic and authenticity attracts.

So, while being honest and attempting to attract others to this new club of “outlaws” that is said to include Job, Jesus, and God, Bussie demonstrates where she’s really at with God when she states that he “carries a dead child, and that child is Jesus, and all of us too” (157). No, Jesus is risen! Yes, there is suffering, but there’s so much more that can be helpful for potential readers than to bring God completely down to an utterly flawed human level and say something like “he’s just like us, so he understands.” He understands, and has conquered!

To be fair, there are also small sections in the book that praise God and his love, but I think Bussie’s experience with her mother’s suffering and passing is still eating away at her and is the lens through which she sees her life, her students, and the rest of the world. Yes, we are called to participate in changing the world (examples of which are included in the final chapter and may or may not be helpful for a Christ follower), but it is in Christ that we should have our identity, and it is through and for him that we are able.

Given the poor exegesis and evaluation of the book of Job in the second chapter, I would not have gone any further had I not agreed to review this book. However, having finished it in its entirety, I can say that my concerns about its direction were validated. In its sincere desire to help and encourage struggling Christians or those who have been pushed away by hypocrisy, it can be even more damaging than the things it attempts to correct.

 

 

*Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”