Shawna Atteberry

Baker, Writer, Teacher

Book Review: After You Believe by N. T. Wright

Have you ever thought: “I’m saved, now what?” Or “I know I’m a Christian, but there has to be more to Christian living than waiting around for heaven.” If so, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters* is the book for you. Bishop N. T. Wright (Anglican Bishop of Durham, England) has taken up the topic that most Protestants have been shying away from or vilifying for the last 500 years: good works. First Wright picks up with the topic of his last book, Surprised by Hope*, which corrected one of the biggest fables of Christianity: that heaven is the ultimate destination of the Christian. Our ultimate hope is not as disembodied spirits somewhere out there. The true Christian hope is bodily resurrection and inhabiting the new earth and new heavens. After You Believe tells us what difference our ultimate hope makes in living this life in this body (both individual and corporate) on this earth. Because we are called to be priests and one day will rule creation with Christ in the new earth, we need to learn the ways and language of that new world and that new way of life.

The way we learn to live this new life and prepare for our roles in God’s new creation, is through learning and living the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love. This goes beyond a “keeping the rules” mentality or the “if you go with your heart you can’t go wrong” philosophy. Like learning a new language or learning how to play an instrument, this is not easy or natural at first. But the more we keep committing ourselves to choosing the ways of faith, hope, and love, the easier it becomes until it is second nature. Wright ties the Christian virtues to the fruit of the Spirit: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, greatheartedness, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self control” (p. 194). He notes that “‘the fruit of the Spirit’ does not grow automatically. The nine varieties of fruit do not suddenly appear just because someone has believed in Jesus, has prayed for God’s Spirit, and has then sat back and waited for ‘fruit’ to arrive” (p. 195, emphasis author’s). Just like gardening which takes pruning, watering, mulching, and looking out for blight and mildew to grow plants, we each have to cultivate a life in which the fruit of the Spirit can grow. For those who think that the Spirit’s fruit does come automatically Wright points them to the last characteristic on the list: self-control. No one comes by self-control automatically: it’s something everyone has to work on and develop throughout his or her life.

The final chapter of the book describes how virtue can be practiced, and how we learn to start living as the priests and co-rulers that we will be in the new creation. Wright calls it the virtuous circle, and the circle includes Scripture, stories, examples, community, and practices. It is by engaging with this circle as both individuals and communities, that our character will be transformed and loving God and loving others will become our second nature. These practices will prepare us for the new language and the new way of life that we will have in the new creation. There is an excellent “For Further Reading” appendix for those who want to delve more into virtue, Christian virtue, ethics, and character.

My few criticisms about the book have more to do with style than content. Wright does get repetitive, and you go over a lot of the same ground again. I was also annoyed when he would bring up a subject then say we would get to that later on in the book. It happens numerous times, and I thought: wait till we get to that part before bringing it up. There are also several occasions where he makes a comment, then says something to the effect of, but we can’t go into that here; it’s another book. If those asides are any indication, there are several more books on the way.

Overall I thought this was a good, informative book, and it starts to fill a gaping void in Protestant practice: where do good works and character fit into the Christian life without becoming something we have to do to earn salvation. I recommend it for anyone who wants to know more about how to live as a Christian in this body, in this world, at this time.

*Affliate Link

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received the product mentioned above for free by The Ooze Viral Bloggers in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” This article has been reposted at The Ooze Viral Bloggers.

Updated Book Review: Saving Women from the Church

I have upadated my book review after comments Susan left. Please make sure you read her comment. There’s somef good stuff there. Thank you Susan for stopping by!

Today is the release date of Susan McLeod-Harrison’s first book Saving Women from the Church: How Jesus Mends a Divide (Barclay Press, 2008). Upfront I have to say I’m not sure I can review this book objectively. Susan’s story is very close to my own. Reading this book, I wished it had been published about eight years earlier. That is when I was going through my own struggle on whether or not to remain in the Church. And I do mean Church with a big C. I wasn’t thinking of only leaving my denomination, I was thinking of leaving the Church period. I was in seminary and on the ordination track. I did not see a place for myself in Christian ministry. I was single; I was evangelical; and I was called to preach and pastor. I was also asked in various churches if I was going to seminary to be a pastor’s wife. I had come to the point where I wanted to leave. I wanted to walk away. I just did not see a future for myself in the Church.

Saving Women from the Church addresses several of the myths that woman hear in church. Some of the chapter titles are: “If you’ve felt alienated and judged in the church,” “If you believe women are inferior to men,” “If as a single woman, your gifts have been rejected or overlooked,” and “If you’ve been encouraged to deify motherhood.” In the Introduction, she starts with my favorite starting point on women in the church: creation. Both men and women are created in the image of God, and therefore, image God with their gifts and talents God has given them. In each chapter she starts with a fictional account of a woman who is experiencing and living one of the myths. She follows it with a imaginative portrayal of how Jesus treated women in a similar position in the New Testament. She follows the biblical story by explaining what Jesus was doing and with questions for discussion. Each chapter ends with a meditation meant for healing. Saving Women does a great job of translating theology into practical, everyday examples in language normal people use. The history and sociological work she does for each passage, explaining the culture of the people, at the time is also well done.

I think this book would make an excellent woman’s study or small group study. It addresses most of the myths women in the evangelical church have grown up with and still deal with. It would be a great conversation starter, and it is a valuable addition to other books on this subject. The language and tone of the book make it much more accessible and understandable to the typical lay person than most books in this genre. In the conclusion, Susan recommends women in abusive churches leave and gives a list of churches that are egalitarian and open to women in ministry. Saving Women does a good job of acknowledging and describing the myths, and encourages women to get out of these environments. The Recommended Reading at the end of the book also has books that would help in this regard.

Overall I am very pleased that this book is on the market. It starts with the premise that women are made in the image of God and called to build God’s kingdom. Then it deals chapter-by-chapter with the destructive myths that have prevailed in evangelical culture to keep women as second-class citizens and powerless in the pews. It is an excellent resource to begin busting these myths and helping women find their God-given ability to be equal partners in building God’s kingdom with their brothers.

Book Review: The Secret Message of Jesus

The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything by Brain McLaren, (Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 2006), $19.00.

Why is the vision of Jesus hinted at in Dan Brown’s book more interesting, more attractive, and more intriguing to these people than the standard version of Jesus they hear about from churches? Why would they be disappointed to find that Brown’s version of Jesus has been largely discredited as fanciful and inaccurate, leaving only the church’s conventional version? Is it possible that even though Brown’s fictional version misleads in many ways, it at least serves to open up the possibility that the church’s conventional versions of Jesus may not do him justice?

These are some of the questions Brain McLaren asks in the introduction to his latest book, The Secret Message of Jesus. McLaren also points out all of the interest in the Gnostic Gospels in the last few years. And he asks the same questions: why are people fascinated by the Jesus they see there and not the Jesus the church puts forth? Then he asks these questions, which are the thesis of the book:

What if the problem isn’t with our accepted stories of Jesus (the stories given us by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in contrast to these alternate accounts) but rather with our success at domesticating them and with our failure to see them in their native wildness and original vigor? What if, properly understood, the canonical (or accepted) Gospel of Matthew is far more radical and robust than the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas, or the canonical Gospel of John is far more visionary and transformative than the apocryphal Gospel of Peter–if only we “had ears to hear,” as Jesus says?

McLaren’s point is that the Jesus we see at church; the Jesus televangelists proclaim, the Jesus presented to our culture in a variety of ways is not the Jesus of the Bible. This book is a search through the gospels for the Jesus they present.

McLaren begins by examining the history into which Jesus was born. He looks at the Jewish state under Roman occupation, and how the Jews had been under occupation since their return from exile under Darius. Throughout that time the apocalyptic literature began to form. Instead of the view that God would break into history and free Isreal from foreign occupation so they could be the people of God in the land of God, Jewish writers began to see God ending history and beginning a new era called the Kingdom of God, in which God’s Messiah would rule. The Jews could see no way for God’s kingdom to be realized in the world as it was. McLaren points out that one of the scandels of Jesus’ message was that Jesus said the Kingdom of God was at hand. The kingdom was here. It could be grasped; it could be attained. For the Jews of that time they could not imagine why Jesus would be saying this. Everyone knew the Kingdom of God could not come while the Romans ruled.

Jesus’ proclamation that the Kingdom of God is here–that it is growing among us like yeast working its way through dough–corrects one of the biggest heresies of Protestantism, particularly Protestant Evangelicalism. This heresy is that the gospel is personal and private. That this relationship is just between me and Jesus and nothing else matters. McLaren points out that yes, Jesus’ message is personal, but it is far from private. Jesus’ gospel is personal and public. Jesus told his followers how to treat their enemies, how to live under occupation, how to treat the poor and destitute, and how they should regard Caesar. His message was political, economical, and circled around the social justice of the prophets.

I think the most needed message the American Evangelicalism needs to hear today is the differences McLaren draws between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world:

Jesus says again and again, this kingdom advances with neither violence nor bloodshed, with neither hatred nor revenge. It is not just another one of the kingdoms of this world. No, this kingdom advances slowly, quietly, under the surface–like yeast in dough, like seed in soil. It advances with faith: when people believe it is true, it becomes true. And it advances with reconciling, forgiving love: when people love strangers and enemies, the kingdom gains ground.

The place where the heresy of personal and private does the most damage is where we separate how we treat others privately or corporately. For Christians this is not an option. We are commanded to love our enemies all the time, including enemies of our nations. Christians should be the last people to jump on the war bandwagon, and if it is necessary to go to war, it should be with great reservation and praying for forgiveness. War may be a necessary evil at times, but it is still evil and sin. And Christian leaders should not be watering down the real nature of war when their nation goes to war. The Kingdom of God does not advance through violence, whether it be by violence on the frontline, or violence behind the pulpit, trying to scare people out of hell and manipulate them into heaven. Our actions should be characterized by the same love, compassion, and mercy that we see in life of Jesus.

McLaren points out that one of the great paradoxes of the Gospels is that evil wins. Christ is betrayed, denied, whipped, and then crucified. He dies, and for a time evil wins. Why? What kind of kingdom comes in suffering and death? McLaren asks:

What if the only way for the kingdom of God to come in its true form–as a kingdom “not of this world–is through weakness and vulnerability, sacrifice and love? What if it can conquer only by first being conquered? What if being conquered is absolutely necessary to expose the brutal violence and dark oppression of these principalities and powers, these human ideaologies and counterkingdoms–so they, having been exposed, can be seen for what they are and freely rejected, making room for the new and better kingdom? What if the kingdom of God must in these ways fail in order to succeed?

The only way for Jesus to reveal the corrupt systems of this world–corruption in politics, religion, and other areas of life was to be conquered by those “powers and principalities.” In the defeat of the cross they are revealed for what they really are instead of what they masquerade as. In the victory of the resurrection, Jesus shows that His kingdom of forgiving enemies, turning the other cheek, and reconciliation can change this world in ways we never imagined–if we are brave enough and have enough faith to believe that God’s Kingdom does not grow and work by the standards of this world.

Throughout the book McLaren says that we have been asking the wrong question: “How do I get to the heaven?” Instead the questions we should be asking is “How do I live righteously in this life? How do I join in building the kingdom of God here and now? How do I be Christ at work, in my neighborhood, with my family?” Going to heaven is never the focus of the Gospels: the focus is the Kingdom of God is at hand: it’s here! The question is what are we going to do about it?

The Secret Message of Jesus is secret only because we refuse to see it. We have set up an idol in Jesus’ place in our image that tells us the things we want: power, war, revenge, and a million other sins are okay. But the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels is very different from the Jesus presented in many churches and by many organizations today. He is not a middle-class suburbanite. He is not a war-monger (after all he was the one who rebuked John and James for wanting to call fire down on a Samaritan village that did not welcome them). He is neither Rebuplican or Democrat or Libertarian, for that matter. He is the Son of God who demands us to radically realign our lives to his kingdom ethics that make no sense in this world: love your enemies, turn the other cheek, forgive and be reconciled, and take care of those who cannot take care of themselves: the poor, the refugees, the homeless, the prostitutes, the drug addicts: sinners. May be if this was the Jesus we met in church, people wouldn’t be so enamored with the Jesus of The Da Vinci Code. They might even think about coming to church to learn about Jesus instead of the Gnostic Gospels. May be it’s time for us to start proclaiming the “secret” message of Jesus.

Movie Review: The Illusionist

“It was the age of levitations and decapitations, of ghostly apparitions and sudden vanishings, as if the tottering Empire were revealing through the medium of its magicians its secret desire for annihilation,” writes Steven Millhauser in “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” the short story on which this movie is based. Eisenheim (Edward Norton) is an illusionist performing in turn-of-the-century Vienna. He becomes the sensation of Venice, and the crown prince (Rufus Sewell) attends one of the shows. The crown prince’s soon-to-be-fiance, the duchess Sophie (Jessica Biehl) turns out to be Eisenheim’s long lost childhood love. They renew not only their friendship but love. As Eisenheim continues to perform magic and upstage the crown prince, who must find a logical answer to every illusion, the prince determines to run Eisenheim out of town. Paul Giamatti plays Chief Inspector Uhl who gets caught between the corrupt prince and Eisenheim, who is determined not to bow before the prince, much less run from him. The scenes between Norton and Giamatti are very subtle and nuanced as are the performances by both men. Giamatti is the only narrator, and we are drawn into the story through his eyes as he balances his allegiance to the crown prince while remaining sympathetic to Eisenheim.

Inspector Uhl attends every performance Eisenheim has performed, and the illusions make Uhl and us question if they are the result of supernatural works, or if they are really illusions. As the power struggle between Eisenheim and the crown prince grows so do the stakes and the illusions. Amongst the smoke and mirrors that Eisenheim sets up we, like Uhl, must try to figure out what is real and what is not. At the climax Giamatti performs an incredible scene of pantomime, as we watch him retrace his own narration through flashbacks and come to a different conclusion. Again we are left to determine which version of the story is real and which is the illusion. The Philip Glass score is a beautiful composition that reinforces every scene in the movie—from the subtle interplays between Norton and Giamatti to the power plays and through to the mind-bending climax. At the end we are left to decide what we will believe and not believe, and what we will interpret as “real,” and what we will see as “illusion.” PG-13, 110.

Book Review: Coming Up for Air

Coming Up for Air: Simple Acts to Redefine Your Life by Margaret Becker, NavPress, paperback, $13.99, paperback, 232 pages.

In 1995 Grammy Nominee and Dove Award winner, Margaret Becker, was in another hotel room and couldn’t remember where the bathroom was. She had been feeling disconnected from her life, like it was running her instead she being in control of it. When she couldn’t remember the last vacation she took, and her search on the computer didn’t help, she decided to get away. She would take a month-long vacation in Florida. There would be no cell phone, no checking in at the office, no taking projects to complete. It was going to be a month for her to rest, to watch sunsets and sunrises, and relax. In her third book, Coming Up for Air, Becker shares that month by the ocean, and how that month of discoveries was still playing out in her life 15 years later.

In the first part of the book, “Breathing In,” Becker describes her decompression period. She discovered how hard it was to be in the present, to slow down and actually rest or just sit still. In “Breathing Deep” Becker recounts how she began to evaluate her life and start dreaming about what she wanted for the rest of her life. After a shopping trip where she stocked up on paper, pencils, crayons, and other art supplies, Becker started to write down her dreams and figuring out the direction she wanted to go. Through writing, drawing, and dreaming, Becker determines how she wants to live her life, and how she wants to spend her time. At the end she comes to the conclusion that she wants to be at home more (so she can have a golden retriever), she wants to encourage people and help them fulfill their dreams, and she wants to write. As she goes through this process, she also remembers events from her past, the family that shaped her, and critical points that made her the person she is. The third section, “Breathing Free,” begins ten years after Becker’s first retreat. One of the decisions she made was that she would continue to have a yearly retreat where she stepped back, evaluated and rested. She has done that. She has also continued a practice she began on her first retreat: watching the sun rise and set. She talks about how her life has changed, and how she feels in control of her schedule and not the other way. She does have a golden retriever, and she has made the center of her life friends and family. She has learned how to say no to things that are not important to her and the goals she wants to accomplish.

Coming Up for Air is a well-written memoir of coming to grips with a life that has gotten out of control due to busyness and making the decision not to let “busyness” control your life. Becker’s honesty and candor shines through, especially as she recounts trying to come to terms with her own self image, or the fact that she has not been mindful of putting money away for retirement. She does a good job of describing how hard it can be to slow down, and how hard the evaluating and dreaming process can be. It made me want to sit down and dream about my life and write the necessary steps it would take to get from here to there.

Two very good book reviews

I did not write these reviews however. Ben Witherington, the professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, recently posted reviews on John Updike’s Terrorist and David L. Holmes The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. I’ve always liked Dr. Witherington’s work on the New Testament. He’s one of the few scholars who can make a point, make his case, then move on, and not beat a dead horse. I was very happy when I discovered he had a blog. His review of both books, not only gives a good view of each book, but he asks very practical and pertinent questions about the United States, Islam, and Christianity.

Book Review: The Faiths of the Founding Fathers
Book Review: Terrorist

Needless to say, both of these books are now on my to-read list.

Book Review: God of the Fairy Tale

God of the Fairy Tale: Finding Truth in the Land of Make-Believe by Jim Ware, WaterBrook Press, 2003 (184 pages).

In Jim Ware’s God of the Fairytale: Finding Truth in the Land of Make-Believe, Ware reminds us why we are never too old for fairy tales. Beginning with a scene between J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis, Ware goes on to illustrate chapter-by-chapter why Tolkein’s statement that the story of Christ fulfills all other stories, myths, and fairy tales is true. In fairy tales such as “Cinderella,” “The Bremen Town Musicians,” and “The Little Match-Girl,” Ware shows how each story illustrates how life is then goes on to show an important biblical truth.

Fairy tales do not deal in rose colored glasses and blissful utopia. In tales such as “Hansel and Gretel,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” and “Snow White,” we see how cruel and brutal the world can be. Abandonment, kidnapping, murder, jealousy, and cannibalism are some of the gruesome themes the fairy tales explore. But just as God does not leave humanity in it’s own sin and consequences, so the fairy tales do not leave Hansel and Gretel in the witch’s clutches, or Cinderella in the ashes. Ware does a good job of seeing grace in the tales, and then goes on to show how that grace can work in our lives.

This book reminds us of the power of story through all cultures, and reminds us that we, too, need to tell our stories, not white-wash them, and point out the places where our lives have been graced. Most often those moments of grace happen in the dark and fear-filled places of our lives.