Jesus Is Better than You Imagined by Jonathan Merritt

Twitter led me to Jonathan Merritt.  During a recent dust up in the seemingly never-ending culture war debate surrounding gay marriage I came across a rather heated debate in my Twitter feed.  It included Merritt along with supporters and critics. I was vaguely familiar with his work as a journalist and columnist but hadn’t read any of his books.  With this as a background Jesus Is Better than You Imagined intrigued me:

jesus-is-better-than-you-imaginedAfter following Jesus for nearly two decades, Jonathan Merritt decides to confront the emptiness of a faith that has become dry, predictable, and rote. In a moment of desperation, he cries out for God to show up and surprise him, and over the next year, God doesn’t disappoint.

In JESUS IS BETTER THAN YOU IMAGINED, Jonathan shares vulnerable, never-before-shared stories of how he learned to encounter Jesus in unexpected ways. Through a 60-hour vow of silence in a desert monastery, he experiences Jesus in silence. When a friend dies of a rare disease, he sees Jesus in tragedy. Through confronting childhood sexual abuse, Jonathan discovers Jesus in honesty. In an anti-Christian-themed bar, he finds Jesus in sacrilege. And when he’s almost kidnapped in Haiti by armed bandits, he experiences Jesus in the impossible.

Though Merritt finds himself in places he never dreamed of, he doesn’t lose his way. Instead, these experiences force him back to the Bible, where he repeatedly offers fresh, sometimes provocative, interpretations of familiar passages. Along the way, he throws back the covers on the sleepy faith of many Christians, urging them to search for the Holy in their midst.

Conveniently, I was able to get a review copy from NetGalley so I could read it on my Kindle.  I found it to be an earnest and heartfelt exploration of Merritt’s spiritual journey but also an odd blend of Southern Baptist evangelical culture and progressive attempts to rework faith in light of modern experience and perspectives.

In some ways I can relate to the author’s perspective and exploration. I too grew up in an conservative evangelical household, although not a pastor’s son like Merritt and in the Midwest rather than the South, and often felt both attracted to and suffocated by that culture and world. Notably, I don’t share Merritt’s history of abuse which I am sure in some important ways colors all of his experiences.

The good: the honesty and good will that comes through. Merritt is sharing his journey and is willing to admit his faults, temptations, weakness, etc. I think many readers will find this refreshing and helpful; particularly if they have struggled with similar issues. Merritt clearly has a big heart and writes well about his experiences.

The bad: it struck me as another example of modern evangelicalism’s focus (particularly the progressive variation) on individual psychology and experience with all of scripture and faith seen through that lens. It is also often a rehash of the other obsession of modern evangelicalism: legalism versus grace. In his defense, if you grew up in this culture and time you can’t help but be engaged in the debate to some degree. But it strikes me as rather stale at this point.

This is not an academic book by any stretch of the imagination, nor did I expect it to be, but I nevertheless found some of the discussion oddly vague; particular when he is “reinterpreting” various Bible stories and passages.

For example (and admittedly this might be just an unfair offshoot of my peculiar biases and interests), Merritt offers no awareness of how something like the New Perspective on Paul, and the resulting debates, might change the discussion about the Pharisees, hypocrisy, and legalism. His approach is all mid-twentieth century southern evangelicalism.

And that is the problem I had.  It is an heartfelt, winsome, and at times engaging memoir but this short work feels a little thin by the end. If you like the author and/or his writing style, or wrestle with similar challenges, it is an easy read.  But I am not sure it ads much insight or clarity to theology, ecclesiology, or spiritual practice.

Every Bush Is Burning by Brandon Clements

I picked up Every Bush Is Burning by Brandon Clements for free on Kindle at recently.  I am not sure what it says about me, but I have signed up for so many sources of free or highly discounted ebooks (plus social media channels) that I can’t remember which particular one directed me to the giveaway on this one.  But fiction with a spirtual thread has always interested me and this seemed like a potentially unique take:

Every Bush Is BurningJack Bennett has a wife, two kids, the perfect job–and the perfect affair. When he is caught and it all comes crashing down, Jack is left with no one to turn to. No friends. No family, except his recovering drug addict of a sister.

On a Sunday morning drive, he sees a homeless man locked out of a church service, banging on the door. He stops and offers the guy a cup of coffee. He asks the man his name, and the guy says Yeshua. As in, Jesus.

Jack’s not stupid. This isn’t the real Jesus. But with nowhere else to turn, Jack forms an unlikely friendship with this eccentric homeless man–one that will test his idea of truth, faith, love, and forgiveness.

And Jack is completely unprepared for the real-life twists his story is going to take.

And free is free, right? So I picked it up and then dipped into it just planning to get a taste of the style, plot, etc. but just kept on reading.  That is a good sign usually and overall I thought it was well done.  I particularly have to give this book credit for its creativity and honesty. So many books written with their first priority to “preach” a certain message, rather than tell a story, fail as literature even if they manage to get their point across.

Clements starts things out that way, perhaps intentionally, as you feel as if you are reading another one of those encounter the real Jesus books that is only loosely fiction and mostly preaching. But then the lead character Jack begins to find his voice, and the Yeshua character begins to take on an unexpected edge and you feel the fission of potential blasphemy (some probably stopped reading offended) and it ends with some well done twists and turns.

Did it get a little preachy at the end? Sure, but not enough to ruin what proceeded. For what it is worth, I didn’t find the theological aspects all that compelling, nor did the criticisms of the church in America strike me as particularly insightful (not that any of it was wrong per se). I thought the dream sequences toward the end, for example, were a little obvious and broke the flow of the story without adding anything particularly profound or unique.

Instead what I found interesting was the portrayal of believable characters and their emotions, thought processes and actions under difficult circumstances. In viewing the world through their eyes you can see how often we are stubbornly sabotaging out lives, how we know what we should do but have a very hard time doing it, and how we long for forgiveness and reconciliation but struggle to offer it to others.

The author doesn’t wrap up everything in a nice bow when it comes to the character’s lives and the repercussions of their choices. Life is messy and complex. The characters were stubborn and flawed and thus felt more real. It was in their actions and reactions, their lives and choices where you really see the impact of faith, or the lack thereof, not in the attempts to convey a particular approach to church or theology.

Overall, an interesting and sometimes quite compelling thought experiment that actually works as a story.

Every Bush Is Burning from Dust of the Ground on Vimeo.

Every Bush Is Burning by Brandon Clements

I picked up Every Bush Is Burning by Brandon Clements for free on Kindle at recently.  I am not sure what it says about me, but I have signed up for so many sources of free or highly discounted ebooks (plus social media channels) that I can’t remember which particular one directed me to the giveaway on this one.  But fiction with a spirtual thread has always interested me and this seemed like a potentially unique take:

Every Bush Is BurningJack Bennett has a wife, two kids, the perfect job–and the perfect affair. When he is caught and it all comes crashing down, Jack is left with no one to turn to. No friends. No family, except his recovering drug addict of a sister.

On a Sunday morning drive, he sees a homeless man locked out of a church service, banging on the door. He stops and offers the guy a cup of coffee. He asks the man his name, and the guy says Yeshua. As in, Jesus.

Jack’s not stupid. This isn’t the real Jesus. But with nowhere else to turn, Jack forms an unlikely friendship with this eccentric homeless man–one that will test his idea of truth, faith, love, and forgiveness.

And Jack is completely unprepared for the real-life twists his story is going to take.

And free is free, right? So I picked it up and then dipped into it just planning to get a taste of the style, plot, etc. but just kept on reading.  That is a good sign usually and overall I thought it was well done.  I particularly have to give this book credit for its creativity and honesty. So many books written with their first priority to “preach” a certain message, rather than tell a story, fail as literature even if they manage to get their point across.

Clements starts things out that way, perhaps intentionally, as you feel as if you are reading another one of those encounter the real Jesus books that is only loosely fiction and mostly preaching. But then the lead character Jack begins to find his voice, and the Yeshua character begins to take on an unexpected edge and you feel the fission of potential blasphemy (some probably stopped reading offended) and it ends with some well done twists and turns.

Did it get a little preachy at the end? Sure, but not enough to ruin what proceeded. For what it is worth, I didn’t find the theological aspects all that compelling, nor did the criticisms of the church in America strike me as particularly insightful (not that any of it was wrong per se). I thought the dream sequences toward the end, for example, were a little obvious and broke the flow of the story without adding anything particularly profound or unique.

Instead what I found interesting was the portrayal of believable characters and their emotions, thought processes and actions under difficult circumstances. In viewing the world through their eyes you can see how often we are stubbornly sabotaging out lives, how we know what we should do but have a very hard time doing it, and how we long for forgiveness and reconciliation but struggle to offer it to others.

The author doesn’t wrap up everything in a nice bow when it comes to the character’s lives and the repercussions of their choices. Life is messy and complex. The characters were stubborn and flawed and thus felt more real. It was in their actions and reactions, their lives and choices where you really see the impact of faith, or the lack thereof, not in the attempts to convey a particular approach to church or theology.

Overall, an interesting and sometimes quite compelling thought experiment that actually works as a story.

Every Bush Is Burning from Dust of the Ground on Vimeo.

The Reformation: A History by Patrick Collinson [audio]

I have been reading a decent amount of theology lately (about which more later).  For some reason when I get burned out on politics I tend to read more theology.  I am also a big fan of the Modern Library Chronicles series and have managed to collect quite a few volumes. Lastly, as you will recall, I have been listening to audio books in my car as a way to “read” more books.  So when I saw The Reformation by Patrick Collinson at the library in audio format I picked it up.

reformation-history-patrick-collinson-hardcover-cover-artThe religious reformations of the sixteenth century were the crucible of modern Western civilization, profoundly reshaping the identity of Europe’s emerging nation-states. In The Reformation, one of the preeminent historians of the period, Patrick Collinson, offers a concise yet thorough overview of the drastic ecumenical revolution of the late medieval and Renaissance eras. In looking at the sum effect of such disparate elements as the humanist philosophy of Desiderius Erasmus and the impact on civilization of movable-type printing and “vulgate” scriptures, or in defining the differences between the evangelical (Lutheran) and reformed (Calvinist) churches, Collinson makes clear how the battles for mens’ lives were often hatched in the battles for mens’ souls.

Collinson also examines the interplay of spiritual and temporal matters in the spread of religious reform to all corners of Europe, and at how the Catholic Counter-Reformation used both coercion and institutional reform to retain its ecclesiastical control of Christendom. Powerful and remarkably well written, The Reformation is possibly the finest available introduction to this hugely important chapter in religious and political history.

I listened to this one on in the car over the last couple of weeks and really enjoyed it. It turned out to be an eloquent and engaging work; both literary and thought provoking. To be fair, however, it is not really an introductory history of the reformation so if you are looking for a simple and direct entry-level explanation this is not it. But the literary and intellectual quality makes that a moot point in my book. Collinson explores the people and ideas, and their impact, of this time period in fascinating and challenging ways. He has a deft way with words and phrases which made this book a joy to listen to.

Continue reading

A Call to Doubt and Faith: Christian Wiman on Remembering God

Podcast: A Call to Doubt and Faith: Christian Wiman on Remembering God

The poet Christian Wiman is giving voice to the hunger for faith — and the challenges of faith — for people living now. After a Texas upbringing soaked in a history of violence and a charismatic Christian culture, he was agnostic until he became actively religious again in his late 30s. Then he was diagnosed with a rare form of incurable blood cancer. He’s bearing witness to something new happening in himself and in the world.

Worth a listen.

New York Times on ‘My Bright Abyss,’ by Christian Wiman

‘My Bright Abyss,’ by Christian Wiman reviewed at the NYT:

This is a daring and urgent book, written after the author learned he had a rare, incurable and unpredictable cancer. But it is not a conventional memoir of illness and treatment. Beyond informing us that he received his dire news in a “curt voice mail message,” Christian Wiman says very little about his experience of the medical world. He is after bigger game. More than any other contemporary book I know, “My Bright Abyss” reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes.

New York Times on ‘My Bright Abyss,’ by Christian Wiman

‘My Bright Abyss,’ by Christian Wiman reviewed at the NYT:

This is a daring and urgent book, written after the author learned he had a rare, incurable and unpredictable cancer. But it is not a conventional memoir of illness and treatment. Beyond informing us that he received his dire news in a “curt voice mail message,” Christian Wiman says very little about his experience of the medical world. He is after bigger game. More than any other contemporary book I know, “My Bright Abyss” reveals what it can mean to experience St. Benedict’s admonition to keep death daily before your eyes.

Noah's Ark – Heinz Janisch (Adapter), Lisbeth Zwerger (Illustrator)

As long time readers know, I am a big fan of Lizbeth Zwerger and have been collecting her books at library sale and used book stores for a while now.  This weekend I got lucky again and found Noah’s Ark for $1.  Rather than a “review” I thought I would post a gallery that gives you some idea of the art the book contains.  Not surprisingly I found it to be a wonderfully evocative presentation of this classic story.