Review — “Rumors Of God” by Darren Whitehead and Jon Tyson

Chances are very good, you’ve heard about this “God” guy Christians talk about. You probably even have some idea of who you think He is. But how accurate are those impressions? How many of those are misconceptions? Even for a lot of Christians, some of the most important truths of the nature of God are things they’ve only heard something about. In this book, Darren Whitehead and Jon Tyson explore the deeper reality of these “Rumors of God.”

The greatest merit of the book comes in making the divine personal. The book is divided into chapters that each explore the truth of a different “rumor” of God, exploring a different aspect of each nature — grace, love, freedom, justice. But in doing so, the authors do far more than reveal who God is — by shedding light on who He is, they explore what it means to be a Christian, and what it means to be a church, and how the two are intricately linked.

For me personally, I could not have asked for a better book at a better time. I read it serendipitously, having received a free review copy through BookSneeze, but it was an incredible blessing. I’ve been through a period that had really challenged my view of who God is, and this book helped me break apart and better rest in my understanding of Him.

Rumors of God on BookSneeze

Welcome to the Golden Age of Heresy

Rob Bell in the "Love Wins" trailer

OK, for those not in the sorts of circles to know this, I’ll summarize.

There’s this guy, Rob Bell. He’s a preacher. And he’s written books with hip-sounding names like Velvet Elvisand Sex Godand Drops Like Stars.

I’ve read Velvet Elvis. I own others, but haven’t read them yet. I’ve also seen some of his video stuff.

So he’s got a new book coming out, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

He made a video trailer for his new book. In the video, he questions whether Gandhi’s in hell.

This has made many people upset.

These upset people have tweeted and blogged a lot about being upset.

People were upset because saying that Gandhi might not be in hell is heresy.

And heresy, they say, is bad.

Saying that Gandhi might not be in hell, they say, means that Bell may not be a real Christian.

“Farewell, Rob Bell,” they say.

For those people, things are just going to get worse.

Welcome to the Golden Age of heresy.

Everything I’ve heard about the book, including watching the video, makes me think it probably is, in fact, heresy.

And, personally, as much as it sucks, I think believing Gandhi is not in hell is a dubious belief, Christianity-wise.

But I’m not upset about Rob Bell saying it.

See, people use the word “heresy” like it’s a bad thing.

Me, I believe heresy is going to save the church.

Some people would say it has before. Ironically, some of those are the same people condemning Rob Bell for heresy.

All heresy is, is saying that you believe something outside the mainstream orthodoxy.

Sometimes heretics are the people who twist religion to fit their own purposes. I’d agree that sort of heresy is a bad thing.

Sometimes, however, heretics are the people who stand up and say that mainstream orthodoxy is wrong, that it’s the result of someone twisting religion to fit their own purposes. I’d say that sort of heresy is a good thing.

If you believe that the elements of communion do not literally transubstantiate into the body and blood of Christ, thank a heretic. John Wycliffe died for that belief.

If you believe that the Earth orbits the sun, instead of vice versa, thank a heretic. Galileo was threatened with death for this belief.

Heresy is how the church matures, how it evolves, how it grows, how it rights itself when it is wrong.

It can also be how the church goes wrong in the first place.

How do we decide which a given heresy is? By listening to it. By evaluating it. By comparing it to scripture. By praying about it.

The same way we evaluate any new belief we’re exposed to.

So why do we live in fear of heresy?

Because we’re told to.

Because heresy is a threat to those in power in the church. Church leaders are only church leaders to people who believe the things they’re teaching. If people read Rob Bell’s book and think about it and evaluate it and compare it to scripture and pray about it and end up deciding it has merit, some church leaders will lose followers. They will lose power. They will lose influence. They will lose books sales and tithe money.

Those people don’t want you to read and evaluate the book. They want to stop you from hearing what it has to say. They want to dismiss it as heresy. They want to dismiss Bell as un-Christian.

Five hundred years ago, reformer John Calvin said of heretic Michael Servetus, “If he comes [to Geneva], I shall never let him go out alive if my authority has weight.” Servetus was the originator of the now not-uncommon doctrine of “once saved, always saved,” or the “perseverance of the saints.”  Seven years later, Calvin testified against Servetus in a trial that resulted in Servetus being burned alive at the stake for heresy.

We live now in a different world. Today, John Piper, perhaps Calvin’s best-known modern follower, tweets to his hundred thousand followers, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”

Today’s established leaders have new tools for silencing those who would share ideas.

Unfortunately for them, we are entering a new Golden Age of heresy.

We are living in an age where heretics can be heard like never before. They can tweet. They can write blogs. They can write books. Their ideas can spread. And those who agree with them can say so. Just like those who don’t.

Like never before, Christians have the freedom to explore new ideas. They have the freedom to evaluate their beliefs for themselves. They have the ability to explore the scripture for themselves, aided by vast resources from generations of experts. They have literally volumes written by competing schools of thought to peruse and compare.

You don’t have to take John Piper’s word on Rob Bell. You can read his book yourself. You can read Piper’s books. You can — you must — read what scripture says about both of their arguments. And you can decide.

Until I can read the book, I won’t know for sure what Bell says in it.

From what I’ve seen so far, it flies in the face of beliefs I consider important.

What I have seen, I would call heresy.

It’s not uncommon for me to read books with heretical viewpoints and consider them without merit.

It’s also not uncommon for me to read books with more orthodox viewpoints and consider them without merit.

I can’t guarantee what I’ll think of Bell’s book. But I’ll be interested to see what it says.

You don’t have to agree with Bell. You don’t have to read his book. But you also don’t have to dismiss him because someone says to. The choice is yours.

The days of silencing heretics are over.

We Can Be Heroes, Just For One Day

Brick at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Davidson Center. Purchased while we were married; we were divorced before it was put on display.

And the license said you had to stick around until I was dead
But if you’re tired of looking at my face, I guess I already am
But you’ve never been a waste of my time
It’s never been a drag
So take a deep breath and count back from ten
And maybe you’ll be alright

— Liz Phair, “Divorce Song

I was going to write this post anyway, but I’m posting it today because of Anne Jackson.

I wrote a post published Saturday about her book, “Permission To Speak Freely,” and my reaction to it and to learning after finishing the book that she and her husband were divorcing.  She was kind enough to not only read my post this weekend but to actually respond to it, and her response caused the gradual back-burner mulling that was still going on in the dark recesses of my mind to demand more immediate attention.

I may have been a little glib in my review, but the truth is I didn’t realize how much the book was still challenging me.

I stand by my original main thought — the book wasn’t what I was expecting it to be. I reiterate that for two reasons. First, to say that, should she read this post as well, I would be the first to read a book by Anne Jackson closer to my original expectations — dealing more with the things people feel they can’t say in the church, why the church creates that culture, and how the church can begin the work of changing that. The things she wrote about that subject in “Permission” were quite interesting; I would love for her to expound on it.

And I’ll admit again that my review was colored by the fact that those things are very much a pet subject for me; I’m passionate about those issues, and perhaps gave the rest of the book shorter shrift than it deserves for that reason.

I do agree, passionately, with the point she makes in the book — that the reason people feel like they can’t say things is that nobody says those things. Whatever you’re dealing with, you’re not the only one who has experienced brokenness, and there are others who can empathize with where you are and what you’re dealing with because of their own brokenness. But, unfortunately, since no one feels like they can talk about their brokenness, no one talks about their brokenness, and because no one talks about their brokenness, no one feels like they can talk about their brokenness.

She’s right, and she’s also right that the only thing that changes that is when people stop caring if others are transparent, and start being transparent themselves. When someone starts, they give permission for others to follow suit. They create a place where it’s safe to share. I believe this passionately also, and have strived to do this myself, and have encouraged others to do so.

Her book may not have handed me exactly what it wanted, but she’s done something more valuable — she challenged me. And I hope she can appreciate that I offer that as high praise for an author.

Which leaves the other issue; the one Anne talked about in her blog post, the one I eluded to in my review, the one I’ve been mulling ever since.

I wished I hadn’t read about her divorce until after I wrote about the book. It was impossible for me to not be colored by that. I did wait until after writing the review to read her post about her divorce, which may or may not have been good to do.

In my review, I alluded to the fact that the book, to some extent, held her marriage up as evidence of the merits of her arguments. In her reply, Jackson wrote:

Yep. My marriage failed. And it sucks. And the “progress” made in my book is now printed tens of thousands of times to remind me.

Yet have I failed? Am I less loved? Am I less learning?

Hell no.

I’ve much to learn, much to grow, and never…ever…ever…ever…have the answers.

(As stated in the final chapter) 🙂

And here’s the thing — I’ve been there.

You read Anne’s post and you read her book, and together you get this picture: A marriage of about seven and a half years. Struggles because of her sexual abuse in the past. Struggles because of her addiction issues. Perseverance. Love. Victories over those struggles. A marriage that shows that those things can be overcome. And then, one day, it’s over.

I’ve been there. I lived that picture, exactly. Exactly.

The worst days came about two years after we married. I got a call on Valentine’s Day that my wife had done things I assumed couldn’t be true. They were. Less than two weeks later, we celebrated our second anniversary in a mental health facility.

Those were not good days. Nor were the ones that followed them.

But we persevered. We endured. We struggled and we survived. And things got better.

And because we persevered, because we endured, because we struggled and survived. We thought we had won. We declared victory over the demons that plagued us. We encouraged others. We counted ourselves as a success story. When a cousin’s marriage was falling apart, we held ourselves up as an example of the fact that if we could endure what we endured, their problems were certainly no reason for divorce.

And those demons laughed, and waited.

Yes, the worst was behind us. Yes, things had gotten better. But, eventually, even the better version of those problems, over time, wore us down.

And one day we stopped persevering. One day we stopped enduring. One day we stopped struggling and surviving.

And it ended.

We stopped being a shining example, and became another statistic.

Her post does a good job of capturing some of the emotion of being in that situation. If you’ve been there, if you know anyone who has, if you fear being there, read it.

My most glib and regrettable comment in my review was this: “one’s answers to life’s problems are valuable only if they’re efficacious, and Jackson fails to fully make that case using her life as example.” One, it’s unkind to rub salt in such a fresh wound. Writing online provides a certain illusion of disconnect, but the truth is its a network that allows anyone to connect with anyone. My words were placed where they could find their way to their subject, and as such were inconsiderate.

Second, they’re not really true. Like I said, I agree with what she wrote. I agree with the value of transparency. Nothing in her story belies that.

So why would I write that? Because of the third issue — those words weren’t really about her. They were about me. Substitute “Jackson” for “Hitt” (and change the pronoun, of course) and it’s a truer statement. Who am I to ever act like I know anything?

Unlike Anne Jackson, I don’t have a book recounting those victories and perseverance, my successes and the lessons I shared from them.

All I have is a brick.

A brick we bought during a fundraiser for a major project here in town. We assumed we would be together forever. We had divorced by the time the brick was placed. There’s an irony there about being “written in stone.”

The brick is still there.

I could probably have it removed. But I don’t. Because, as I’ve said many times since, “those things happened.” That’s part of my past. That’s part of my story. It’s a testament to my brokenness. There are lessons there and truths, too valuable to be erased for the convenience of creating a prettier picture.

Things happen sometimes that suck.

Anne, you wrote a good book. I hope your current life situation doesn’t diminish that for you at all. Whatever is happening now, whatever happens in the future, those things happened. Your book is truth. And truth is an absolute good. Be proud of it.

For me, the lesson is this.

Until we die, the story isn’t over. Our lives aren’t fairy tales. We can’t declare “happily ever after” until the story is completely told.

Victory doesn’t come with major battles that ensure lasting success. It comes one day at a time.

When we declare victory, we’re setting ourselves up for defeat.

To have any chance, the only way — the only way — is to fight each day as if that’s the day that matters. And be glad for that day, and not think winning today somehow wins tomorrow.

We do indeed have “much to learn, much to grow, and never…ever…ever…ever…have the answers.”

I’ll also add that you can get an autographed copy of the book for $10 or a really cool t-shirt via the official PTSF website.

You Are Free — To Serve

It looks like I’m going to stop wandering around so much to different churches and start attending Flint River regularly with Heather and the boys, so I’m discontinuing my regular “Another Sunday” series. If I end up visiting somewhere new, I may write another entry, but, right now, it just doesn’t work for where I am. Instead, I’m going to try starting a new series, “You Are Free,” focusing either on teaching about how Christians are free, or riffing off teachings that give false perceptions of that freedom. This is the first part of that series.

God wants you to serve.

Have you ever been told this in church? Hopefully so. Because it’s true.

Have you ever been told that you’re not serving right, or serving enough? That’s a common one to here, too.

But what does God want?

Maybe you’ve been told that people use “doing the family stuff” and “doing life” as excuses not to serve. They say they’re too busy because of the new baby or the kids’ ball games.

Or maybe that coming to the church service on Sunday doesn’t count either. That’s “worship,” not “service.”

Likewise Sunday School or other small groups. Those are “discipleship” or “Bible study,” not service.

Things like being a good parent, being a good spouse, honoring your parents as a child are “good qualities to have,” but aren’t service.  They’re not what God expects from you.

But what does God expect? What does He want? What is service?

If you’re a slave, a servant, service is doing what you’re told. If that’s to work in a field, or clean a house, that’s service. If it’s being told to sing, or to play with a child, that’s service.

We serve God when we do what He tells us.

When Jesus on Earth, there were three things He said to do that were so important they were called “great.” Two great commandments. One great commission.

Love God. Love others. Make disciples and teach them to obey.

Worship. Relationships. Discipleship. Study. These are the things that God asks us to do. And if we do them because He asks us to, they’re service.

That doesn’t mean that those are the only things you should do. Maybe you’re called to teach Sunday School. Or to help the homeless. Or to be in the choir. Or to go on a mission trip. If you are, that’s what God’s asking you to do. And doing it because He asks is service.

But maybe the thing God most wants you to do right now is to be a better spouse. Or to be the best parent you can. All of these things are under that “Love others” commandment. Paul spends a good bit of time breaking down the details on these things in his letters. And if that’s the big thing God’s asking you to do right now, then that’s what you should be doing it. And if you do it the way He asks, that’s service.

There’s no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach for what serving God looks like. Nobody else can tell you. Nobody else should make you feel guilty; not if you’re asking Him and trying to do what He asks of you.

When He was on Earth, Jesus didn’t teach Sunday School, or join mission trip teams, or serve on committees, or sing in the choir. He went around talking to people about God, and helping people He met with problems. That, certainly, can be service. All we know about his mother Mary is that she did what God asked her to do and tried to be the best mom she could. That’s service, too, because that’s what God wanted.

This isn’t about liberty; it’s about freedom. It’s not about saying you don’t have to do anything; God does want you to serve.

It’s about being free to ask God what how He wants you to serve, and being free to do that out of love for the Father, regardless of anyone else’s expectations.

Church of the Red Pill

red pill and blue pill from the matrix

“This is your last chance. After this, there is no going back. You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and you believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill and you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” — Morpheus

“I know what you’re thinking, ’cause right now I’m thinking the same thing. Actually, I’ve been thinking it ever since I got here: Why oh why didn’t I take the BLUE pill?” — Cypher

I was having coffee this morning with my discipleship partner, Dave, and we were talking about church. He told me about a church plant that he was involved in when it started almost 20 years ago.

It was, he said, for the time, radically different. In an era when people still wore their Sunday church clothes to Sunday church, people went to this church dressed in their everyday clothes. At the beginning of the service, you could tell the visitors because they didn’t believe it when they were told they didn’t have to wear a tie to church. When hymns were still de rigueur, the church focused on worship music that was more accessible to the congregation. Everything about the church was designed to be more user-friendly. Today, a lot of those things are pretty common, but, again, at the time, they were very much the exception.

The church was different in one other major way, too — a big part of its focus was on breaking people out of a spectator mentality when it came to church. Rather than church being something you got up on Sunday morning and watched for an hour or two, it was something you were involved in, and not necessarily just inside the confines of the church building. It was about making church a lifestyle.

And that’s where some people ran into problems. They enjoyed the different atmosphere of the church, were more comfortable in the different atmosphere. But they just couldn’t break free of the spectator mindset. They didn’t want to. They could go so far in embracing the church, but no further. And because of that, many of them gradually became uncomfortable and left.

The problem was, they also didn’t want to go back. They couldn’t go forward to fully embrace the new church, but after experiencing the atmosphere there, they also couldn’t be happy at their old churches. Dave said the pastor once commented to him that it would have been better for a lot of people if they’d never come to his church. Rather than moving them forward in their spiritual walk, it essentially broke them. After a taste of that, anything else becomes unappealing.

In a lot of ways, Dave and I are broken also. We didn’t reach a point where we personally couldn’t go forward; in our cases, what we had been doing fell apart from underneath us. A major change at the last church he was at changed the entire atmosphere and flavor of it. The house church I was involved in stopped meeting. Neither of us could stay where we were, and we’re beginning to find that it’s hard to go back.

When you’re part of a community that is open to exploring God without agenda, it’s harder to be in conversations where you’re expected to not deviate from the “proper answers.” To me, it’s like a child walking past the most incredible playground he’s ever seen, but not being allowed to leave the sidewalk. God’s too big and too awesome to let somebody else decide what you can think about Him. And He’s more than good enough to withstand the scrutiny, ya know?

When you’re part of a community that rejoices in sharing each other’s walk, in being there for each other spiritually and emotionally, in supporting each other, in learning from each other, it’s harder to go back to having the people in your church just be the people you set next to you while you’re instructed. Church shouldn’t feel like a second-grade classroom, but without the fun.

When you’re part of a group that realizes that God is awesomely huge and mind-blowingly complex, it’s harder to go back to being part of a church that wants to boil him down to right answers. Is God divinely sovereign or lovingly allowing of freedom? Is He a God to whom no sin is too big to overlook, or for whom no sin is too small to condemn? Is He defined by His own glory of His love for His creations? To all of those things, yes.

When you’re part of a group that samples and explores the diversity of conflicting viewpoints on God and evaluates each for its merits, it harder to go back to being part of a church that only drinks one flavor of Kool-Aid.

The problem becomes that the latter types of churches are the most common. The flavor of Kool-Aid may be different, the small view of God may be different, the decorations in the second-grade classroom may be different, but the result is the same. Too often an invitation to “rethink church” is really an offer to replace one church’s thoughts about church with another’s. Actual rethinking is OK, as long as it’s what the church thinks. You don’t get to be free of an agenda, you only get to pick the agenda you want, and how serious the church is about it.

And for most people, that’s fine. Because they’ve never taken the red pill. They don’t even know that it exists. They don’t understand that there’s an alternative. They don’t know what it is to go to church and not be told what they should think. They don’t know what it is to go to a church without an agenda. And so they’re content.

And, yes, sometimes I envy them. But I’m not sure how I can go back.

“You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.” — Morpheus

“I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone, and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world … without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries; a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.” — Neo