Review

Compelling Atheists in a Flat World of Faith: Cross Examined, A Review

Cross Examined: An unconventional spiritual journey by Bob Seidensticker is a novel about a young man in his late 20’s who is a new convert to Christianity who has been taken under the wing of a pastor of a rapidly growing church, with a ministry for apologetics.  A series of events surrounding the great San Francisco earthquake that appears to have been predicted by the pastor, leads the protagonist on a journey of questioning and doubt partly bound up with a secret past.

The Novel begins some months before the  San Francisco earthquake on April 18th 1906, during this same period the Azusa Street Revival were beginning in Los Angeles.  It is also the time of prominence for Democrat populist politician William Jennings Bryan.  Yet the historic landscape is a world devoid these two very significant realities, the Azusa Street revivals and the life and political career of William Jennings Bryan.  One keeps waiting for some mention, some recognition that this would have been in the consciousness of anyone in this time in American history and yet, though this apologist pastor offers a sign and wonder, the forms of Christianity that actually lived in the realm of signs, wonders and prophecy’s don’t exist.  And the Democrat Christian Fundamentalist Politician of William Jennings Bryan and the Democratic Party of which he was a part also does not exist.  This compromises what is in other ways is a novel with some really compelling characters, the Atheist Emerson, and the Abbot of a Buddhist monastery in Near San Francisco.

When the pastor seeks to run for political office, the author seems to assume that a person of faith would seek out the Republican party, but this fails to take into account that the Democratic party was the home of the populist fundamentalist Christian William Jennings Bryan .   The other shortcomings of the novel is that the only believable and truly sympathetic characters are those who aren’t Christian or who are in the process of questioning or losing their faith.  The best characters in the novel are the atheist Emerson and the Buddhist Abbot.   I did not find a convincing description of anyone with what I would consider true faith.  No one with the exception of Mrs. O’Brien (who isn’t the most fleshed out of characters)  even comes close to being described as having a faith that is  a relationship with God.  I understand that an atheist author may interpret such an experience of faith and God as delusional, but to describe most faith as merely ascent to belief without an actual experience of having relationship with a god (even if that relationship isn’t real) is a failure of imagination and willingness to enter religious experience.   These two failures of imagination undermined the author’s tale.

In the end this novel would have been better written as a type of memoir of contemporary events and spiritual journey into and out of ossified Christian faith in the late 20th Century early 21st century.  The early 20th century was an odd setting for the sorts of Christianity that the author wished to take aim.  The late 20th century is really the Christianity he was seeking to describe, and the author of the book Evidence that Demands a Verdict, seems to be the type of Christian pastor celebrity found in the novel.  The Author seems to project on early 20th century Christianity the ossified faith of the late 20th century and early 21st century American Religious Right.  This anachronism is compounded by the failure  to imagine compelling people of faith. The author fails to imagine that  people of faith actually experience a relation to divinity.  In Cross Examined faith is merely depicted as the adherence to a set of beliefs about the world,  Rather, than imagining  people of faith  who actually experience a connection with the divinity they believe in.  An atheist, may assume that such experience is some form of delusion, but to depict all people of faith as having no experience of a relationship to divinity is to fail to understand the nature of religious experience.  The author was unable to imagine both an accurate historical context and any person of genuine faith.

I suppose I found Bob Seidensticker’s novel about as believable and he finds Christian faith.  Which is disappointing since with a little imagination, he could have presented a very genuine and unsettling encounter between faith and atheism.   What we are left with though is the world of the novel as mere backdrop for his mostly flat characters, who are foils for his atheist heroes, whom I really liked as people.  If only the novel had been  populated with more believable human beings.

Bob Seidensticker’s Patheos Blog

Cross Examined on Kindle

An article on Bob Seidesticker in Seattle Met

 

Review of Juxtaposed : A Memoir that Offers Hope

Daisy Rain Martin’s memoir Juxtaposed: Finding Sanctuary on the Outside, is brilliant, funny, hopeful, and heartbreaking.  Daisy Martin’s story is one of triumph over horrible abuse as a child.  Martin’s story can offer hope to those who come from similar situations of abuse and for those of us who have or are walking with survivors of abuse.

Martin’s story is one of survival and recovery from abuse as a child.  Her story is of how church, family and even her mother colluded with her abuser.   It’s also a story of faith and of how God can reach through even the most horrific of life circumstances.  Daisy Rain Martin’s faith shines through though she admits it unconventional.  Though from my perspective it is simply faith that is based not on the externals of churchiness and religious practice but one who is known by God.

Her story is how God and Jesus broke through the false religiosity of her home life, and lead her into an authentic faith. Martin in one point describes the world of her nuclear family and her abuser.  Satan and Jesus were prominent figures in that family as real as her siblings, mother and “stepfather” ( whom she calls throughout the book “stepmonster”, never for obvious reasons ever able to give him the name of father or dad.) Satan in this world is the one with the immediate and obvious power, Jesus is kind of a wimp, an all-powerful incompetent.  Oddly enough she doesn’t dismiss the existence of this Jesus, only suggest the imposter nature of this one named Jesus, very different from his doppelgänger with whom she has a heart to heart with about God’s and his lack of intervention.  God and Jesus never answer her question.  But the real Jesus lac of intervention is not one of incompetence.  The beauty of this as I see it is that it satisfies no one.  She refuses to play the game of theodicy.  Martin isn’t interested in doing God justice or seeking to defend or accuse God.  Nor does she ever let Jesus or God off the hook.  Her resolution is that God and Jesus aren’t her personal protection, and yet with God and jesus she is safe.

This is one persons story, told with authenticity and humor.  Juxtaposed is the result of a long journey much pain and much healing that has come in what many will consider unconventional and even unspiritual ways.  yet it is a story full of joy, hope and God’s love.  Daisy Rain Martin is a hoot, and her story gave me hope.  She tells of a moment when God met her in the words of stranger that one day from her would flow streams of water, she has taken that and speaks of pouring out hope.  Of course the words spoken to her were the words Jesus spoke to the Woman at the well, and is what Jesus speaks to all, the promise that from within us can spring a never-ending stream of living water.  If such a stream can spring up within the life of Daisy Rain Martin it surely can spring up anywhere, and there is hope.

I can’t give Juxtaposed the justice it is due in what I write here.  There isn’t anyone who shouldn’t read this book (except for children as a disclaimer says at the beginning of the book) Martin even warns the reader when she goes into details that one need not and may not want to read.  You will laugh.  You will cry. You will ask questions and find no answers.  You will see  in her story bits of the stories of so many you have known.  There are few answers but there is hope.  Through her story Martin offers us God who know us and the world we live in.  In telling her story there is the offer to be known beyond and within this world where truly and deeply shitty things happen.

Daisy Rain Martin’s Website

Daisy Rain Martin on Facebook

Daisy Rain Marin on Twitter

Review of the Enoch Factor: The sacred art of knowing God

Steve McSwain, wants to let us in on an amazing secret: you can know God.  The problem is it shouldn’t be much of a secret and many who think they know how (including the author at one point in his life even as a Baptist pastor) and can know God don’t know what Enoch knew.  Enoch is that character in the beginning chapters of Genesis about whom all we know  is that “He walked with God and was no more.”  Enoch for McSwain is a model for what it means to know God: we all can walk with God and overcome death.

While on one level McSwain’s book has the sound and focus of something quite esoteric oddly mystical, most of his book sounds like the revivalist and pietist faith in which I was raised in the Evangelical Covenant church.  The difference being that while I’ve always been fascinated by Enoch, few if any of my teachers in the faith talked about him.  However, McSwain’s emphasis on knowing God as being in a relationship with God and one that overcomes one’s fear of death, all sound very familiar.

In this I think The Enoch Factor is a great artifact of how Baptist and Evangelical congregations and leaders have in the past 20 to 30 years failed to pass on the central aspects of their tradition, teaching instead a legalistic, and doctrinaire religiosity replacing relationship with God for knowledge about God.  McSwain’s experience both being raised a Baptist and being a Baptist pastor were until his “conversion” recounted in the book, was such a walk of faith. One mediated by rules, doctrines and authority figures (in McSwain’s case his father who was a Baptist pastor and missionary).  Oddly enough McSwain’s account of the faith of his childhood and career as a pastor prior to his faith crisis, was the stereotype of Baptists I grew up with in the Evangelical Covenant Church: Baptist had only the forms of faith and relationship with God but not the substance.

McSwain in the Enoch Factor has some real wisdom.  Unfortunately in our context and the way in which McSwain writes it can appear to be a new discovery.  McSwain does attempt to connect up the wisdom he has found in the art of knowing God with a long tradition within the history of the Church.  However, his sense that this wisdom and art is all but lost in our time leads to some exaggeration that in my view makes him a poor spiritual guide.  The value of the Enoch factor is more as an example of how even in the midst of the failure of American Christianity in our time, God reaches out and in the midst of a desolate spiritual landscape, can enliven a soul.   I however recommend taking McSwain with a grain of salt, there are better guides to the Spiritual life out there both in our time and in the past.  If one can’t find one in your immediate context read for yourself Cynthia Bourgeault,  Richard Foster, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Brother Lawrence, Julian of Norwich, St. Catherine of Siena, St John of  Cross, St Augustine, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers(and that’s a quick list off the top of my head, dig around and you’ll find more.)

Steve McSain on the Web:

McSwain’s Website

On The Huffington Post

Vimeo

McSwain’s You Tube channel

On Facebook

Review of Mending Broken: A Personal Journey Through Trauma and Recovery

In Mending Broken: A Personal Journey Through Trauma and Recover Teresa B. Pasquale presents her personal history of trauma and recovery in a compelling and at moments moving way.   I read the book as a pastor and spiritual director who has worked with parishioners and directees who underwent trauma and suffered from PTSD.  Much of what the author relates about her own story and journey of recovery fits with what I’ve experienced in working with individuals with related stories.  The book helped me tease out a number of my own failures in working with individuals recovering from trauma and PTSD.

Pasquale takes the reader through the PTSD and recovery by walking us through her own trauma suffering from PTSD and her recovery.  The book is divided  into Four Stages each associated with a metaphor of living with and recovering from PTSD.   Throughout the these sections she takes us through the trauma, PTSD, and recovery with the dual perspective of a sufferer from PTSD and a therapist.  This is both the strength and weakness of this book.  As someone who has worked with those recovering from trauma and PTSD as a pastor and spiritual director, her personal account helped me better understand those I have worked with in the past.

This is a good resource both for those who have suffered trauma and PTSD and friends of those suffering from PTSD and their pastors and spiritual directors.  Mending Broken  is a personal account of someone who has had PTSD and recovered, and who is a therapist.  This dual perspective offers a unique and helpful resource.  For those wanting or needing more than this limited account of recovery from trauma and PTSD there is an extensive bibliography and resources.   Pasquale has offered a needed and helpful account of PTSD and recovery.

Mending Broken: A Personal Journey Through Trauma and Recovery

Visit Teresa Pasquale’s blog Crooked Mystic

The Society for Young Christian Contemplatives

Review- Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal

Milton Brasher-Cunningham’s book Keeping the Feast: Metaphors for the Meal is a feast packed into a small book.  It is a book to savor, and to return to again and again.  A mixture of prose, poems, and recipes creates a delightful read, and a sense of sitting around Milton’s table or sitting with him in his kitchen as he prepares a meal.  This is a rich book that weaves together reflections on the place of meals and foods in our life and relationships and through these stories of food and cooking illumines the author’s understanding of the Eucharist.

Each Chapter of the book is opened with a poem and concludes with a food poem, I mean, recipe.  The connection between the poem the chapter and recipe aren’t necessarily obvious, though the dish of the recipe generally functioned as a central component of the chapter it concludes. I found this as an encouragement to make my own connections and conclusions as a reader.  Through the poems I anticipated what I might find in the coming chapter and the recipe allowed me to savor the chapter just read. In doing this I was continually longing for something more.  Each chapter left me feeling that there was a hollow part of Brasher-Cunningham’s account of meal and Eucharist.

There is so much to affirm and to relish and savor in this book about meal and Eucharist.  The connections between breaking bread around dinner table with friends and family, and the bread broken and distributed, and cup blessed and passed are beautiful and moving.  Yet, these metaphors and reflections tended to send me to the anthropocentric aspects of Eucharist.  In the we make meals, Brasher-Cunningham seems to conclude, so we as humans of faith make the Eucharist.  We become the body of Christ by what we do, by the connections that exist between meal and Eucharist.  I find this hollows out the Eucharist of its divinity.  The transformation offered as only that which other fallible foible filled humans, Rather than by the very presence of the God-human Jesus Christ in bread and wine.

Keeping the Feast then attends to one side of the equation of the Eucharist, and is a beautiful reflection on how one may weave altar and the meals we share with friends and family every day.  The lopsidedness of the book left me wanting more.  And perhaps that is part of the point.

Check out Milton Brasher-Cunningham’s recipe blog

Review of The Shack Revisited

I begin this review with a confession. I’ve never read The Shack.  I remember when it rose in popularity, but I didn’t read it.  I didn’t read it because, I must confess, I have a deep bias against popular spirituality and the books and the book industry around said spirituality.  The Shack Revisited: There Is More Going on Here than You Ever Dared to Dream, by C. Baxter Kruger, seeks to show that The Shack is steeped in Trinitarian theology, and an articulation of God’s revelation of God’s self as triune.  Having never read the Shack, I leave to others whether or not C. Baxter Kruger correctly interprets the Shack.  However Kruger’s presentation of the Trinity from the lens of the Shack shows that one can think and imagine the traditional Trinitarian theology in dynamic and contemporary ways.

Kruger uses the story of the Shack and its presentation of God to illuminate and illustrate the Trinitarian theology of traditional and historic Christian orthodoxy, especially that of the Cappadocian Fathers.  Baxter begins with the character of Papa, who is personified as an African American woman.  Kruger seeks to show that the Shack’s presentation of God as Papa, Jesus, and S… is orthodox and consistent with traditional Trinitarian teaching. In so doing the author presents a very good summary of orthodoxy and Trinitarian theology.

As someone who has never read the Shack Kruger’s Revisiting the Shack is an interesting read, as it is a thorough going Trinitarian theology that is illustrated with examples from the Shack.  While if one has read the shack the author is demonstrating the Shacks orthodox theology. The shack revisited is an accessible and intellectually satisfying articulation of Trinitarian dogma and Christian orthodoxy.  If you think Christian Orthodoxy is represented by those who criticized the Shack and who have a religion of the Bible, the Shack revisited is definitely worth your consideration.  Kruger uses the Shack and it’s themes and imaginative presentation of the Trinity to show how much contemporary Christianity in the United States has missed the central reality of the Christian faith, relationship in and with God as the Holy Trinity.

For more from the Author:

You can find C. Baxter Kruger on Facebook and Twitter.

Baxter Kruger – Free Downloads

Review: Daniel Meeter, Why Be a Christian (If No One Goes to Hell)

Daniel Meeter’s Why Be a Christian (If No One Goes to Hell) is a mixed bag.  At points the author’s analysis is spot on, at times a little heavy handed in what he rejects, and at moments deeply moving.  Some of this mixed bag is that I clearly am not the author’s audience: I’m a lifelong Christian and a pastor, I long ago wrestled with questions of Heaven and Hell and in my way came to analogous conclusions of the author (I just never wrote a book on them.)  While I know that what Meeter’s calls conventional Christianity, the faith of those who raised me in and taught me the faith only resemblance to Meeter’s “conventional” Christianity was their traditional Christian beliefs about the afterlife.  Interestingly enough this form of the Christian faith I was raised in  while we believed in hell, the reasons given for being a Christian are all the reasons outlined in Meeter’s book.   So I wonder are his somewhat idiosyncratic (and defensible from scripture) position on heaven and hell, necessary to make the point he was trying to make.

He admits the book isn’t really about the afterlife, heaven or Hell, it is an introduction to the Christian life and faith. As a summary of Christian life and faith for the uninitiated, it is a great book.  The author presents Christian faith clearly and without deriding or dismissing other faiths and religions lifts up Christianity as a desirable spiritual path.  Yet, this summary is framed in a critique not only of a contemporary conventional view but one long held by orthodox, evangelical, catholic tradition. So, how is a new Christian or returning Christian to navigate this idiosyncrasy?

So, while I understand that the present misuses and misunderstanding of both heaven and hell (that basically deny the importance of the resurrection) would need a critique of these conventional misunderstandings, I think the presenting as orthodox the rejection of the traditional view is a little misleading as well.  Also I think the positive presentation of Christian faith for the seeker could have been presented without throwing the doctrines of hell and the afterlife out the window.  In this sense I think the author throws out the window the baby of traditional doctrine of an afterlife separated from God (Hell) with the dirty bath water of cultural accretions, misunderstandings, and plain old mistakes of what Hell is.   He simplifies the Hebraic view and treats it as static denying that Gehenna has its own evolution within Hebraic thought. Meeter pits Hebraic ideas against Hellenistic, but Hebraic thought and culture are not normative nor are they the word of God.  The author’s talk about Gahanna while at points accurate is also misleading, since Jesus is using a physical place as a metaphor for a spiritual state, and the pairing of an undying worm with constant fire, doesn’t seem to be the description of a physical place.  The fire of Gehenna would go out, and any worms there will die eventually. I agree with him that hell, or unending torment isn’t the reason to be a Christian.  I even agree that the popular versions of Hell distort what it might actually be, but I think the doctrine of Hell stands, and to some degree the author gets Hell wrong even as conceived by C.S. Lewis and Dante. Thus for both Dante and Lewis as representatives of imaginative presentations of hell from an orthodox and catholic perspective don’t see the torment so much as external punishment but that in hell, God gives us what we said we wanted in this life.  The traditional hope of the restitution of all things is that even after death our souls may awaken to God’s love that is a consuming fire.  The traditional doctrine is more complex than the conventional view that Meeter rightly critiques but in his critique conflate the two. Meeter gives short shrift to Tradition in part due to an anti-Hellenistic bias.

In the end I think you can keep much of the traditional view of the afterlife and keep the emphasis of the book on other things like, love, relationship with God, saving your soul etc., as the reasons for being a Christian.  I have always seen and been taught to see the afterlife as consequence, or corollary to who and what you were in this life.  I have over time come to view heaven less and less as something way out there, and more the deep dimension of the created order where God’s will is done.  In the end I feel the author had a bone to pick on the afterlife.  A bone I share if you are talking about many contemporary conventional views of the afterlife, but I disagree that Augustine’s and Calvin’s views as such, and thus of the Christian Tradition, are the same as the current conventions.  What I’d rather have seen is showing how the current views are (often in subtle and minor ways) distortions of the views held in the Christian Tradition. Thus a great book of introduction to Christian faith and practice is muddied by an unnecessary rejection of tradition.

Daniel Meeter’s blog: http://oldfirst.blogspot.com/

Booksite with links for title on Kindle, iPad, and Nook: http://shookfoilbooks.com/Why_Be_a_Christian.html

Holy Terror: Mel White’s compelling and human account of the Christian Right

Holy Terror: Lies the Christian Right tells us to deny Gay equality, by Mel White is a compelling read with an immediacy that draws one in and keeps one’s attention.  Mel brings us into his insider view of the Religious Right .I grew up in an (moderate) Evangelical denomination in which I’m ordained, and so I’m somewhat familiar with most of the Fundamentalists Mel White is writing about.  Even so I got a better and more human view of the leaders of the Christian Right than I had before reading Holy Terror. Mel White doesn’t just give us a peek inside he offers analysis of the movement and its faith and politics.  White concludes with a way to engage and counter the Christian Right and their anti-homosexual ideology.

Part one and two of Holy Terror, gives us a look inside the rise and workings of the Religious right by looking at six main evangelical and fundamentalist leaders and a gathering of fundamentalists at Glenn Eyrie conference center in Colorado in may 1994 .  White introduces the reader to the Fundamentalist leaders and their beliefs about homosexuality; we meet them through Mel White’s recollection.  In part two we move from Mel’s own personal knowledge of the leaders to transcripts of video from a closed conference at Glenn Eyrie.  In this we get a glimpse of the ideas, the personalities and the tactics of these who have had political as well as religious goals to spread their ideas and ensure that America remains a “Christian” nation in name and morality. From the author’s perspective they are genuine and authentic but honestly wrong about a number of things but most relevantly, wrong about homosexuality.  In these first five chapters White walks the line between a sympathetic account of those with whom he has major disagreement and a biting expose on what Mel White believes to be a dangerous group.

Parts Three and four move into analysis and response to this religion with a narrowing agenda and focus on homosexuality, taking up an overtly political agenda to carry out its ends.  Chapters six and seven show how the Christian Right and Fundamentalism are both a Christian and an American heresy.  In chapter six we see how the Christian Right has made an idol of the United States.  In Chapter seven White shows us how fundamentalism as a phenomenon is a form of fascism.  While White makes some interesting points in these two chapters, I feel the book is at its weakest here.   White doesn’t seem entirely comfortable with his own analysis of fundamentalism qua fascism.  Even so, if we leave aside the labels, chapter six and seven do show how a narrowing of a focus and an obsession with homosexuality and gaining political influence has distorted Christian faith.

Part four White asks what shall we do, (or to quote Francis Schaeffer “How Then Shall We Live.”).  In these chapters White is the most compelling and vulnerable as an author.  These three chapters mirror the first three chapters where we see the founders of the Christian Right in their humanity and genuine (if wrongheaded) beliefs.  In the last chapters White seeks to show himself as someone who has struggled with the appropriate response to the Christian right, and still struggles in himself with the desire to demonize.  His solution to his own anger and frustration and pain is three-fold: “reclaiming” political values, reclaiming moral values, and non-violent resistance.  Chapters 8 and 9 have parallel weaknesses to chapters six and seven, but in chapter ten White shines again as he invites the reader on a journey of following Christ through the challenging path of non-violence, in response to and engagement with the Christian Right.

In Holy Terror, Mel White gives a compelling and riveting account of the Christian Right and its narrowing focus and intensified political activity in opposing homosexuality.  White goes beyond the “ Lies the Christ Right Tells us to Deny Gay Equality” to both give a human picture of those involved but also offer us a way to with White engage and counter the Christian Right in its Political agenda.  While there are some deep flaws in Holy Terror they are the flaws of a human on a journey of following Christ in the midst of pain and controversy.

Mel White Links:

Mel’s website: http://www.melwhite.org/

Mel’s blog: http://www.melwhite.org/blog/

Mel White on Anderson Cooper: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mDRpTsdKQS4

Mel White on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/revmelwhite

Mel White on Twitter: http://twitter.com/MelWhite