[Book Review] Discovering the God Imagination

Discovering the God Imagination: Reconstructing A Whole New Christianity
By Jonathan Brink
294 pages

This is a gutsy book. Author Jonathan Brink dares to suggest a new theory of the atonement. In many theological circles this is something that is not only believed to be utterly unnecessary, it’s akin to messing with the truth itself. Inconceivable! And bravo.

Brink respectfully addresses the problems found in the two most prominent theories of the atonement: the Penal Substitutionary Theory, which after all is said and done has the concept of a God who still seems pretty angry, and the Ransom Theory, which somehow has God beholding to Satan, as if God couldn’t just blow him out of the water if he were to so choose. In suggesting some new ideas, Brink works his way through the biblical text to develop a sound argument as bible scholars have always done. I found that his theory does not contradict our pet doctrines, but rather, it offers another paradigm for thinking all together.

I find Brink’s theory quite compelling because it addresses the saving nature of the atonement in every way in which a person can be saved. It goes to the core of the heart of wounded people, bringing a practical theology that not only does the necessary magic in the heavenlies (which the older theories emphasize), but brings healing to our hearts in the present. It is the only atonement discussion that I have seen that actually talks about transformation in ways that reaches into more of our human brokenness than a cognitive assent to a doctrine could ever do.

In short, Brink points out that even in the garden when this messy thing called the fall happened, God was not angry. He was deeply saddened, but not wrathful. For God had set up a question in the garden, posed by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent used it to call our identities into question. Who are we? If we are not like God (implied by the serpent), then are we lacking? Are we…evil? That is the conclusion that we drew and it has darkened our understanding about God and ourselves ever since. We have let of go of the God Imagination, which is God’s perspective of ourselves, and have exchanged it for a warped and harmful vision. The lie that we chose conceals our true selves, which is the first death. We now live under the burden of the lie that we are inherently evil and thus we act accordingly, all jealous and stingy and afraid. We also project our distorted view of ourselves onto God and assume that he feels that way about us too.

Brink emphasizes the fact that God has never reneged on his declaration that we are good. He makes a good argument that there never truly was a chasm between us and God. He says, “Ransom Theory and Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory get some of it right. Someone is receiving a ransom. Someone is being satisfied. Someone is being paid off. Someone can’t come to a sense of justice apart from sacrifice. But the entity making the demand is not God or Satan. It is us.” The cross was required by us. It is we who needed something as powerful and horrific and love-filled as the cross for the lie to be crushed completely. Brink adds, “love wins by going as far as we demand. Love takes on our worst by revealing its best….We needed something so inconceivable, so mistakenly loving. That it would shatter any argument we could make to the contrary.” Our hearts can change as we begin to grasp the God Imagination because Brinks says, “The beginning realization of belief is the starting point. It is the moment a very different possibility of life is created. To follow is to embrace the possibility of the good. But it is only by living into the Way of Jesus that we can begin to experience life. We live into faith, which creates hope, so that we can experience love.” This love then, says Brink, becomes the love that goes beyond ourselves and gathers in the other.

Because I work now as a therapist, I found that there is a lot of language that is familiar to me. There are terms such as “true self” and stuff about brain science. I am concerned that readers who might not be familiar with the rich concepts that go into understanding things like true and false selves will be tempted to write this book off as new age-y or too psychological. (Think in terms of new man and old man which are more familiar Christianized words, if that helps.) There are also some parts that probably need to be fleshed out more clearly. However, I find the concepts to fit well with much of the agreed upon ideas of what is “biblical”. I also find the concepts to be very welcome, because they bring erudite theological concepts down to the level on which we live, changing core beliefs about ourselves and God and helping to bring about healing in the deepest core of our beings. Brink asserts that we each can become one who overcomes.

This book is not an easy read. Hang in there with the wise and winding Socratic type logic that Brink uses. He will bring the concepts home to you. I challenge those who are reading from a theological bent to first of all, read it. Second of all, try to let go of the “this is where it differs from what I know so it’s wrong” thinking. Certainly there will be things you’ll disagree with, but there is something in this for you to hear as well. And I know, most regular folks don’t find books on theology to be very compelling reading. But I urge you to give this a try because I believe that this book nourishes our hearts into the stunning truth that the God of the universe truly understands human suffering, and would go to any length to demonstrate his love to us in a way that truly heals. That alone, is worth it.

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  • Carie G.

    Ah, Ellen, I am saddened that by endorsing this book you seem to want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is so, so true that “the God of the universe truly understands human suffering, and would go to any length to demonstrate his love to us in a way that truly heals”. Surely true, deep healing – healing of the authentic self – is certainly a fruit of redemption, but not redemption itself. By Christ’s blood we are redeemed from sin, not from suffering, or the effects of suffering. And by redeemed, I mean redeemed.

    This is certainly not the first book to deal with new theories of the atonement (see J.Denny Weaver’s “Nonviolent Atonement”, 2001), and I appreciate that Mr. Brink doesn’t turn Scripture into metaphor. New theories of the Atonement seem to be the new wave of theology for post-modern thinking, but when we let go of Jesus’ blood, we let go.

  • ellenharoutunian

    Hi Carie, I’m so glad you wrote. You’ve brought up an important point and have addressed my concern that people will misunderstand this book. In my read of this book, there is not a lack of the importance of the redemptive power of the shed blood of Christ (although the author uses different language). i.e. the baby is not thrown out. It merely presents another way in which to consider the scope and efficacy of the cross as do any of the atonement theories out there. There are points that will give the neo-Calvinists apoplectic fits, I think, but they’ll be ok. 🙂 It’s certainly ok to disagree. However, a point that I want to make to any reader here is that it doesn’t mean that Brink’s thoughts should be discounted. I reviewed this because I believe there are things we all can learn from him.

    Thinking outside of the boxes we know when it comes to the atonement does not mean we have let go of Jesus’ blood. Maybe we cling to it all the more. My take is that the forgiveness of our sins wrought by Christ is *so that* we might be first of all reconciled to God. Reconciliation is the point and the desire of God, without which redemption of sin loses its meaning. (Redeemed for what if not for relationship with God?) And gleaning from the story of scripture, it seems that reconciliation to God necessarily also means reconciliation to each other, and creation (which includes ourselves). By His stripes we are healed. And by healed I mean healed. 😉 Agree or disagree, both of us can make our points from scripture. But do we not need each other? 🙂

    Just as you have said, there are many books out there that have attempted to address the subject. It goes to show that we really cannot conceive fully of the work of Jesus on the cross and we need to listen to more voices in order to describe it all in better ways. For example, the two major theories are “proved” by scripture and yet contradict each other as well! And, they have divided the church. 🙁 Perhaps that’s the real reason for my interest in this sort of thing. My journey into reading outside of my original theological base has taught me that we must be humble enough to know we’re wrong about a whole lot even as we get some things right, or we will stop listening to each other. It has been very divisive in the body.

    I wish we could merge all the atonement theories and have the wisdom to glean what is good and the humility to throw out what is not. I can’t see it happening in the church as it is now. 😛 And I wish we had a healthier view of metaphor because they might describe truths more deeply and fully than our certainties ever can, because when we define we also reduce.

    Not all in postmodernism is bad, esp. if it helps us to recognize our need for a communal dialogue about such amazing things and to hold what we know loosely so that the reality of Jesus (vs. doctrines *about* Jesus) might be re-membered in us.

    Thanks for opening up the floor. 🙂

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