[Book Review] Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity

Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity
By Roger Wolsey
Xlibris Corporation

It’s important to remember while reading Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity, that the stated purpose of this book is to reach out to those who “don’t currently identify as being Christian, or who do privately, but are hesitant to let others know because the word “Christian” has come to be associated with behaviors, stances, and attitudes that they don’t want to be associated with.” The author brings an evangelistic passion for offering a broader, more progressive point of view to those who for one reason or another stand apart from Christianity. I understand his fervor, having experienced the same frustrations and hurts from within conservative Christianity that much of Wolsey’s target audience has seen and felt. However, at times the tone of the book seems to reflect the very type of thinking that the author criticizes in the parts of conservative Christianity that say, “This is why they are off base, and why we are right.” I admit, at one time this stance would have felt affirming to me. However, at this point in my faith journey, I wonder if that posture only creates more confusion about it all.

The book is best understood through the author’s profoundly personal faith journey that has shaped his beliefs and devotion. Roger Wolsey is an ordained United Methodist pastor who serves on the campus of the University of Colorado. “I shouldn’t be a Christian,” he tells us, “The odds were against it.” His deep disappointment with the church as a youth and young adult confused him about God and repelled him from the church. His faith was later re-ignited through time spent with an intimate community that was “unobtrusive, authentic, down to earth and intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually satisfying.” He came to love Christianity through their communal lens, in contrast to the more individualistic “flying solo” lens of the more conservative traditions that he had seen.

Through his own story, Wolsey seeks to advocate an understanding of Christianity that speaks to today’s postmodern young adults who “embrace a more nuanced, experiential, paradoxical, mystical and relational approach to faith and spirituality” than what has been presented to them through the more outspoken and fundamentalist forms. In this light Wolsey presents his treatise on Progressive Christianity, which he claims, actually “represents a reformation of the church to its earlier, pre-modernist and pre-Constantine roots.” He adds, “Ironically, this implies that in reality, it is progressive Christianity that is conservative and “conservative Christianity” isn’t.”

He offers a series of contrasts and challenges to consider that juxtapose conservative and progressive Christian thought. For example, there are many statements such as, “Conservative Christianity focuses on the religion about Jesus and getting people to agree with certain intellectual truth claims and that its important for people to believe all these things here and now so that they can go to heaven when they die. Progressive Christianity focuses on a more radical way of life, namely, the counter-cultural, subversive and life-giving teachings of Jesus.” And, “Conservative Christianity emphasizes people’s personal relationships with God, Progressive Christianity remembers the Jewish (and Jesus’) understanding of salvation by additionally focusing upon the broader pursuits of inter-human hesed (loving kindness) and the societal Kingdom of God and striving for personal wholeness and social peace, justice and liberation from oppression and bondage.” There are many who will resonate with the first halves of the statements, weary of the narrowness of focus in the conservative church. The progressive alternative is certainly compelling. And the author’s intent is to offer a different lens upon what it means to follow Jesus, and in that he succeeds. However, I do have to wonder if the portrayals of conservative Christianity– and in all fairness I must add that conservatism has made me want to scream all too often– are perhaps too reductionistic and therefore, unfair. Then again, maybe not. Even so, the propensity within us to vilify the other, whomever they may be, stands in sharp contrast to Jesus’ imperative to love one another (even those with whom we disagree) and that is something that I wish the author had addressed with more force.

All that aside, there is much in what Wolsey presents as progressive Christianity that is beautiful and hopeful. He takes on a hefty task by exploring a wide range of topics such as liberation theology, process theology and openness theology. In addition, he explores current hot spots such as the nature of the atonement, the realities of heaven and hell, eschatology, and the problem of theodicy. He also addresses differences and problems of interpretation of scripture and the hermeneutical lenses that both enhance and distort our reading. Obviously, in a work of this length these topics cannot be fully explored. In order to be thorough and fair (to both sides), this work could or should have been multiple books. But his ideas serve as conversation starters, designed to challenge and captivate the minds of those who are frustrated by their perception of the Christian gospel, and to answer some of their struggles.

Problems to be aware of include the fact that Wolsey appears to speak as if Progressive Christianity is a singular group with a clear statement of faith. He also does not clearly differentiate between what is progressive and what is liberal Christianity. (Many of my Progressive friends tell me pointedly that there is a difference!)  Finally, the author often approaches issues as if there are just two possible points of view, conservative or progressive. The diversity of thinking within the Catholic Church as well as well as a multitude of Protestant traditions (and Eastern Orthodox) do bring much more varied and diverse perspectives to all of the issues discussed. Again, the point of the book is to address those who have been repelled by certain strains of conservative Christianity and to offer them what the author has found to be a life-giving alternative. But its hard not to feel as though the vast diversity of the Body of Christ has been diminished a bit by lumping all of us into one of these two categories.

The most compelling arguments for the author’s point of view lie in the last few chapters of the book which emphasize both personal practices such as prayer, forgiveness and reconciliation, and the outward practices of serving and loving others. Wolsey’s passion and compassion for our hurting world is palpable. The “love chapters” push past all of the theological arguments of who or what best represents Christianity, and bring to mind Jesus’ words, “You will know [my followers] by their fruits.” Progressive Christians value orthopraxis, the “right” and radical way of love taught by Jesus. It is here that we are presented with a Christianity that is truly worth giving our all.

Even with all of the problems of the book, it’s hard to dismiss the zeal of a man who desires to entice college students (and yeah, probably the rest of us too) to follow Jesus and help to create the Kingdom of God in the here and now. Wolsey says, “Christians are called to be peacemakers and evangelists of the Christian gospel of forgiveness of sins. Christian are also called to be justice makers – people who do what they can do to create a world where there will be as few sins and transgressions committed as possible. For we know that there will be less to forgive if there are fewer sins and offenses committed. And we know there’ll be less of a need for bandages in a world where ‘justice rolls on like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream.’” (Amos 5:24)

It’s a worthy read.

[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.

[Book Review] Half The Church by Carolyn Custis James

Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women
By Carolyn Custis James
Zondervan Publishing
206 pages, including questions for discussion
Zondervan gave me a free copy to give away – leave a comment and I will use a urim and thummim to decide who gets it.🙂

I see what you did there, Carolyn Custis James. I do hope it works.

I wanted to review this book because it addresses gender-based injustices, one of the things that I am most passionate about in life. The title Half the Church is derived from Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide, by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. For those who already care deeply about these issues, that book will be a better investment of time and money. For those who are new to these issues and are curious, Carolyn Custis James’ book can be a good and heartfelt starting place, but it is frustratingly incomplete in offering what is truly needed to find the author’s goal of “God’s vision for his daughters”.

The book was birthed from the author’s awakening to the brutal treatment and lifelong misery that is endured by a large portion of the world’s population simply because they are female. It contains some heart wrenching stories of wife burnings, beatings, forced prostitution and rapes, forced and under-aged marriage, selective abortion, human trafficking, and the fact of the paucity of resources spent on girls in a world that prefers sons, to name just a few. Perhaps to keep her readers from turning away in distaste, the author somewhat underplays the raw horror of these and other injustices. The very real statistics are gruesome. There is an estimated 200 million women missing from the world’s population due to the discrimination and abuse based solely on being born a girl.

Part of the author’s goal is to awaken the church to these brutal realities, and to challenge us to move on the behalf of the powerless and voiceless, living a gospel of action and deed as well as word. James shows herself to be very wise in understanding that the conservative Western church that she addresses has been somewhat resistant when it comes to social justice issues. She is also aware that it tends to see it itself as a unique entity which looks with suspicion upon anything that is new to their understanding of things, no matter how much good might come from it. James treads on delicate and controversial topics, particularly theological ones, with a light but forthright touch. She understands where that part of the church is coming from and what they can and cannot handle. She approaches them with a style and language that will not close their ears.

James does make a strong attempt at defining the “vision for God’s daughters” in addressing the word used to describe woman at her creation, eser, which means helper. Eser does not refer to an assistant or handmaiden, rather, it is a word that is used most often in the scriptures to describe God. James likens it to being a warrior, which is empowering and sheds broader insight on the purposes of the creation of woman beyond childbearing. She also offers a compelling portrait of the leadership capabilities and the positive impact of women in society. The gist of her scriptural studies is to call attention to the essential dignity of womankind, which is something that must be held as absolute if abuses against women are to ever be stopped.

This is a book that needs to be read between the lines. There are some things that cannot be said outright without losing your audience, in this case I believe, the conservative Christians with a complementarian view of women.  (For those unfamiliar with this word, it is the theological view that although men and women are created equal in their being and personhood, they are meant to complement each other through maintaining gender-based roles and a husband-headship structure in marriage.) If you step on their views it is likely that your voice will be discounted. As I have said, James deftly skirts around the major landmines, such as the concept of wifely submission. She hints that the traditional view of submission just might create selfishness in men when they believe that women are meant to “pretend that they are less than they are” in their relationships with men. She laments that women are prized for their willingness to give in and this way of thinking leans too heavily on just a few attributes instead of embracing the “full range of qualities that Jesus displayed”. It is a shrewd and subversive way to show that the way in which submissiveness is taught in these church circles could be just as bad as the low view of women in the more troubled places in the world.

At this point, James refuses to take a stand on either a complementarian or egalitarian view of women. I think I understand her reasons. To do so would mean that she would lose much of her audience, particularly those who are complementarian if she comes out as egalitarian, which I suspect she is or soon will be. (Honestly, moving towards egalitarianism is inevitable if one continues to be passionate about gender-based injustice issues as a Christian.) But James squirms out from under the issues with a quote that insists that no-one can know what the 1 Timothy 2 passage means (that is the passage that seems to say women may not teach or have authority over a man). Actually, there has been a great deal of respected scholarly work done around that passage and other passages dealing with women (such as Ephesians 5, the “submission” passage) that can lead to a life-giving and dignifying egalitarian interpretation. To not at least acknowledge that when addressing the serious issues at hand borders on being irresponsible. I don’t mean to be too harsh, but how we view women through the lens of scripture has a direct impact on the incidences of gender-based injuctices.

When we bring ourselves to the scriptural text, our underlying assumptions and attitudes should be challenged, and the ways in which we cooperate with the abuses of our surrounding culture should be disrupted. James gives a too easy way out to those who perhaps inadvertently support a view of women that enables abuses from facing uncomfortable but necessary challenges to what they believe. Despite all her compelling words, this group will remain largely unchanged. It is simply heart breaking that the Christian message in this part of the church in regards to women is no different from that of the “world”.

Herein lies the greatest weakness of this book. Her refusal to take a stand belies the very core of her argument. For the belief that women are limited to certain roles, that their voices are not as important, welcome or trusted in all arenas (including teaching men) and that they are to be subservient to men continue to feed the lies and misogyny that keep gender-based injustices in place. James admits that at the core of injustice lies the issue of power. Complementarianism lays power squarely in the hands of men. In not addressing this issue adequately, she becomes an accomplice to the view in the world that women are to be controlled and ruled over, and therefore can be treated as chattel.

Certainly, some will be offended by a proclamation of an egalitarian interpretation of scripture and some will turn away. Yet, because James believes in eser as the essence of woman she should therefore act as eser, a warrior for a reading of the Bible text that could shed more light on “God’s vision for his daughters” that can help to release them from the very cruelties she disdains. Ultimately, she does address the problem of gender wars in the church and acknowledges that a higher view of women will foster a healthier view of men as well.  We all are in need of a masculine presence that can engage in genuine partnership with women and that is much healthier and stronger than that of those who must quiet the voice of woman in order to serve their own egos. However, there will be no ‘blessed alliance” between men and women as described by James without an honest look at the complicity of the church in the oppression of women.

To be sure, there is a time when it is best to be very gentle and prudent in speaking a potentially disruptive message. But the issues of gender-based injustices are very real and many lives hang in the balance. This is not the time to pander to those who worship their dogma over the preciousness of people. Yes, to take a stand means she will lose readers and perhaps speaking opportunities. Yes, Zondervan would lose readers as well. (And money. ‘Nuff said.) Even so, it is time to take a stand, Evangelical Christian publishing world. It is time to take a stand, Ms. James. To do any less is an outright betrayal of those who need you most.

It’s Really All About God – book review (sort of)

itsreallyall3It’s Really All About God
By Samir Selmanovic
286 pages including study questions

When recommending an important book one of my favorite profs used to say, “Go, sell all that you have and buy this book.” There’s not many books that can truly earn such a strong endorsement but I think this is one of them. But I must recommend it with a warning: it will rock your world. Perhaps it’s only suitable only for those whose thirst for God has exceeded safety limits. For through his personal stories and engagement with the stories of  Christians, Muslims, Pagans, Atheists and more, author Samir Selmanovic points the way to a life with God and each other that is bigger and better than most of us have ever dared to dream. It is the only non-fiction book that has brought me to deeply felt tears in recent years. And there’s laughter as well to be sure, flowing easily from his descriptions of our humble human condition. (Really, who writes about their hemorrhoids?) Yet in this warm sharing of very human realities he draws us into a brother and sisterhood of humanity in which we may encounter God in the midst of our ordinary experiences. I am writing this not so much as a book review than as an expression of gratitude.

Samir Selmanovic is the founder and co-leader of Faith House in New York City. He shares his own journey from his beginnings amidst a close atheist/Muslim family in eastern Europe to his conversion to Christianity through a Seventh Day Adventist Church and through the realization of having embraced a way of understanding religion that limited the scope of God’s love in this world. “Religions are meant to lose their luster to God’s larger presence,” he says. And, are we willing to make [our] religion “take a back seat to something larger than itself?” The eye-opening time for him was when he reflected on the fact that his early years had been encompassed by fullness, celebration, hard work, kindness, laughter, generosity and warmth within his secular Muslim home and he realized that “Life was complete, until I became a Christian and it all came apart.

He came to realize that in his early days of conversion he had shut out his former life and relationships. Rather than growing into more life, he had merely switched sides. In my early years as a Christian, I also learned to compartmentalize my life, ignoring family celebrations for Christian retreats and pouring less of me into connection with dorm friends and others to go to Campus Crusade meetings. I ignored my heart for years, assuming that to want to drink in regular old life, side by side with family and neighbors of all persuasions was to step away from the Kingdom or compromise myself. (Yes, I was actually taught that.) Selmanovic demonstrates beautifully that the Kingdom was to be found in those places all along. God inhabits the lives of all people.

At first glance it might seem that this is just another attempt at asserting the idea that Christians dread- that there’s good in all religions so why can’t we all get along? However, I believe he rescues us from our shrunken vision of exclusivity and superiority. He gently and beautifully challenges Christian triumphalism and leads us to a healthier place by recalling our virtue of humility- we are not the only ones who serve and do for the world. He gives us back the wonder of the deep enjoyment of the presence and expression of God in all others. The gift of other religions, he says, is that “They pose difficult questions we don’t want to ask, make assumptions we don’t want to acknowledge or examine, create meaningful arguments against us we don’t want to consider, and expose harmful practices we don’t want to stop.” They make us better Christians and in that vein, they can help us to become better lovers as a more generous expression of God’s heart for this world. Perhaps trying to “own” God has distorted our self-understanding.

So how far can our hearts expand? Christians have considered atheists to be the enemy. Selmanovic draws us into an even more expansive heart that is able to embrace the gift that atheism brings. He says, “Atheism at its best grabs us by the collar and throws us to the ground, demanding to see lives well lived, forcing us to dig deeper and live up to the best of our own religions.” Atheism calls on us to live out the integrity that our “converted” hearts have claimed.

In my tribe I know that a knee-jerk reaction will be that the author is advocating relativism – that all faiths are the same so we should just blend together. We fear the loss of specialness, as God’s “peculiar people”. But he asserts that our uniqueness is a gift that we offer to one another and that the boundaries that maintain our distinctiveness are also essential in order to love well. However, the author reminds us, these boundaries do not need to be cement walls. Why can’t they be bridges? Or doors? If God is relational (and of course He is), so are we, and we need a path towards each other.

But here is the real gift – as we lay down our demand to be first and best and only and that all others must become like us, won’t we then look more like Jesus who laid down all of His privilege, even equality with God, to become one of us and live in our reality, even unto death? We will become lovers in the best sense as He was, serving up, making room for the other and dancing with God as He plays in 10,000 places. As we give up our stake in protecting Christianity, we are freer to follow Christ. Through this gentle, winsome call out of a religious expression which sets up rigid walls between human beings, we may paradoxically find and therefore express more of Him. In losing ourselves, we will find Life. Selmanovic says, “We can either stay with the Christianity that we have mastered with the Jesus we have domesticated, or we can leave Christianity as a destination, embrace Christianity as a way of life, and then journey to reality, where God is present and living in every person, every human community, and all creation.” Sounds like the Kingdom to me.


Read the New York Times Review
Mystery Over Certainty
Video of Samir Selmanovic

(I once again apologize for my lack of gender-inclusive language. There is no appropriate pronoun to describe God who transcends gender and creating hybrids makes me crazy. But the author of this book absolutely includes women fully and freely into this wonderful mix.)

Book Review: Fearless by Max Lucado

Fearless: Imagine Your Life Without Fear
By Max Lucado
Thomas Nelson Publishers
220 pages

fearlessIn these days of economic uncertainty and deep political schisms and conflict, a book on the subject of fear is more than welcome. In Fearless, Max Lucado uses his gentle and optimistic style to speak into the many anxieties of life in this age.

Through his tender and often funny prose, Lucado does what he does best by pointing us back to the heart of God who never abandons or loses His passion for us no matter what we do, or what storm we find ourselves in. He puts words to the many fears that we are sometimes embarrassed to speak aloud, such as that we might not really be forgiven or that God doesn’t care. He also explores how fear can drive us into behaviors that sabotage our lives and faith and take our eyes off of Jesus, who alone is worthy of our awe.

One of my favorite parts is the author’s own confession that he struggles with doubt at times, which he describes as “the chilling, quiet, horrifying shadows of aloneness in a valley that emerges from and leads into a fog-covered curve.” Perhaps this will give encouragement for more of us to admit to one another that we all struggle deeply with faith at times too, even as his solution leads us deeper into our community of believers for help and mutual support. He reminds us from Luke 24:14 (MSG), “The church sticks together. Even with ransacked hopes, they clustered in a conversant community. They kept ‘going over all the things that happened.’ Isn’t this  a picture of the church– sharing notes, exchanging ideas and lifting spirits?” Fear can disrupt unity, but love conquers fear.

The weak point of this book is that it does not do enough to pull us out of ourselves beyond our own concerns for the sake of obeying the command to love others. Though it’s a lovely read, the fears that keep us from learning how to engage those who are different from us or that keep us from loving our enemies as Jesus taught us to do are a non-issue. This is a significant gap because these fears also stall the growth of a Christian and keep us from offering the uniquely Christian expression of God to our polarized country and embattled world.

Lucado has a deep love for God and His Church and his genial pastoral voice could be a guide to help us probe into the deeper, darker places of our hearts that we often avoid. We need both the comfort he brings but also a challenge towards true transformation. This book is a beautiful balm for a worried heart and I will recommend it to others. However, a focus on the fears that keep us from genuine other-centered movement and radical love is the great need of the day and this book keeps us a bit too safe.

Click to read a chapter: