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Beyond Born Again

| 23.7.02
Beyond Born Again: Towards Evangelical Maturity, by Robert M. Price

In Beyond Born Again Robert Price --former evangelical active in Apologetics turned Jesus Seminar member-- uses those sharply honed skills to critique the glaring lack of intellectual rigorism found among the leading and most widely read evangelical apologists. Although a sometimes cumbersome read because of the sheer number of quotes brought in, Price has produced an excellent description of evangelicalism that avoids the pitfalls of over-generalization and straw-man arguments while exposing inconsistencies within evangelicalism, its tendency towards totalism, and blindness to anything beyond its own categories.

Published in 1993 by Hypatia Press, the book is also available on-line in its entirety at Essene.com. It's a rare treat to be able to review something this contemporary and relevant, yet also available to the public for free --only a mouse-click away.

In the first of three main sections, Price divides evangelicalism into two main groups --the "hard line evangelical" and the "soft line evangelical." Hardliners are those evangelicals for whom "all answers to life's puzzles are strictly religious or spiritual in nature and are directly derivable from personal commitment to Christ and accompanying devotional disciplines. Furthermore, all necessary information for this is in the Bible. The result is a purely religious view of the world and the self which does full justice to neither." Authors indicative of the evangelical hard line include Bill Gothard, Merlin Carothers, Peter Gilquist, and Tim LaHaye. Softliners, on the other hand, are a less extreme form of the hard line faith --but still derived from it. "Here, religious commitment is still given fundamental importance in life, but it is also recognized that even the Born Again Christian is subject to problems and solutions that are not especially spiritual in origin or nature. Accordingly, the Bible is not seen to have the answer to everything. One may also look to and trust other sources. The consequent worldview attributes both significant value and independent reality to the world and the self in their own right." Some notable soft line evangelicals include Bruce Larson, Keither Miller, and Ruth Carter Stapleton. Price considers the soft line attitude a lot more psychologically healthy than the hard line attitude, but ironically pans the soft-line as being inconsistent because it pays lip service to the hard-line idea of a unique and sufficient Bible while at the same time finding many of life's answers elsewhere.

In part two, Price examines the arguments and arguing styles of Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands a Verdict and C.S. Lewis' famous "trilemma" argument (among others), accusing both of assuming their conclusions and not looking deeply enough at other possibilities and contrary evidence. Cutting to the heart of the apologists' arguments, Price claims that they all serve as "cognitive dissonance reduction" strategies, aimed at preserving the credibility of a unique inerrant Bible and the hard relgious line. Interestingly, Price makes the distinction that he is not arguing against the possibility of an inerrant Bible, but arguing that the arguments of the evangelical apologists fall apart under scrutiny and additional evidence, which he lays out side-by-side with the apologists' shallow treatments.

Part three discusses the future of evangelicalism as a mature faith. For Price, an evangelicalism that is mature is a post-modern evangelicalism that has dispensed with fundamentalist assumptions as its baseline expression while still remaining in recognizable continuity with its past. Quoting the stylistic definition of evangelicalism put forth by Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary, Price suggests that the distinctive features of evangelicalism are "a message... that must be verbally articulated to those who do not profess Jesus Christ as Lord; an emphasis on the need for a 'personal relationship' with Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of one's life; a set of basic attitudes towards the Holy Scriptures, which are typified by certain devotional patterns and regularly references in Christian discussion to what 'the Bible says.' Price argues that within these distinctives any theological content can be successfully inserted, giving evangelicalism a broader base from which to successfully dialogue with other traditions, and more flexibility to change its theological model as the need arises.

Interestingly, since 1993 some movement has been seen in this direction. Price's former mentor, Clark Pinnock, has advocated "Open Theism," an evangelical version of Process Theology in which it is proposed that God's knowledge of the future is self-limited in order to make room for human choice and action. Although in 2001 the Evangelical Theological Society voted to censure Open Theism as a non-evangelical option, its proposal may be an indication that evangelicalism is willing to start looking beyond fundamentalism for its definitive paradigm.

Beyond Born Again at Essene.com
Beyond Born Again at Infidels.org

PUBLISHER: Hypatia Press; ISBN: 0940841983; (1993)

In Search of Lake Wobegone

| 9.7.02
In Search of Lake Wobegone, by Richard Olsenius (photographs) and Garrison Keillor (text)

I've listened to A Prarie Home Companion since I was a boy. Because I lived in a rural area of out-state Minnesota, I felt like Garrison Keillor was telling my story, and I readily identified with the folks in Lake Wobegon.

The "gimmick" for this book is that the location of Lake Wobegone (something kept hidden in Keillor's radio monologues) is finally made known. According to Keillor, the more compelling a story is, the more people want it to be true or be based in true events. In that light, he "started telling people that the town is in central Minnesota, near Stearns County, up around Holdingford, not far from St. Rosa and Albany and Freeport, northwest of St. Cloud, which is sort of the truth, I guess." (p. 12)

The black and white photos which grace this coffee table book will depict very familiar scenes to anyone who has lived in or near a small midwestern town. High school prom, barren winter landscapes, grain elevators, old men drinking in darkly lit taverns --they're all captured by Richard Olsenius' practiced hand. A photographer with the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the photos are culled from an on-going assignment he had to photograph Minnesota for the paper when news was slow.

These photos are all from towns in Stearns County, but they really could have been taken anywhere in the rural upper-midwest. Many of the people and places looked like they walked right out of my own childhood in Perham, Minnesota. (A community even more Wobegonian than Stearns County, since unlike Stearns, Perham really does have a mix of German Lutherans and German Catholics and is situated near many beautiful lakes.)

As one who moved away from rural Minnesota for college, left the Upper Midwest for grad school, and lived in the South for five years before finally moving back to Saint Paul to raise a family, I could relate to Keillor's comment explaining the appeal of Minnesota's cities for those raised in its countryside:

Minnesota is a state of decent, hardworking people, half of whom live on the expanding island that is the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul, an island of lifestyle in an ocean of cornfields and soybeans, where there is good espresso and Thai food and The New York Times and a couple orchestras and a dozen theaters and movie houses that show foreign and indie flicks and Ruminator Books has about three hundred shelf-feet of poetry and you can get almost anything people in New York or Los Angeles have and yet live on a quiet tree-lined street with a backyard and send your kids to public school. (p. 15)

PUBLISHER: Viking Studio; ISBN: 0670030376; (2001)


| 8.7.02
Baptism, by Martin Marty

If you're looking for a book that settles the age old debate between those who baptize infants and adults, versus those who only baptize adults, this is not the book for you. Written from a Lutheran perspective, Baptism assumes the validity of infant baptism, while not discounting adult baptism. What the book mainly does is bring out some of the major issues concerning baptism, and especially gives useful advice to one who was baptized as an infant on how to usefully appropriate that baptism in adult life, draw meaning from it, and live a life in keeping with the baptismal promise.

Surprisingly, the book is also a critque of some of the pitfalls inherent in baptizing infants in the modern age. The introductory chapter contains two fascinating and contrasting sketches of a baptism cermony. The first is drawn from Tertullian's writings, and depicts a secret ceremony fraught with superstition, performed on adults during Christianity's first century. The second is a christening of a baby boy that could have taken place in any Lutheran, Episcopal, or Catholic congregation today. Mundane, and boring, it's something to "have done" to be "on the safe side."

Drawing on the Bible, scholarship, and Luther's writings, Marty criticizes the excesses of both views while nonetheless affirming that God can work through the worst of our intentions. Marty sketches baptism thusly:

If faith means dependence --the absence of anxiety about the morrow, the active or passive repose of one in the destiny of the Other, the security of the faltering hand inside the strong hand-- then baptismal faith has already said all there is to say. The childlike becomes the model: any faith which does not share this quality cannot matter in the kingdom of God. The humble spirit is fed on the milk of the Word, on the promise connected with the water. With advancing maturity the growth in wisdom and stature brings about crises and quests for new understanding. It is the apparent contradiction within faith --at once already complete and yet in need of fulfillment --that forces evangelical Christians to speak in somewhat circular fashion. (p. 46)

I was looking for something a bit different. As one raised in the tradition of infant baptism, and as one who palpably and intuitively feels that it discloses God's grace in the most glorious way, I was looking for an author who would put what I feel into words. However, Marty goes beyond my desire by preserving something of the Mystery that surrounds this sacrament, as well as providing common-sense advice to parents and churches for making baptism more than something to be done once to an infant and dispensed with, but instead a lifelong vocation. Some of his suggestions, which I've implemented in my own family include celebrating the anniversary of the baptism. This allows us to talk about what baptism means, and how we are to live out our baptism.

PUBLISHER: Fortress Press; ISBN: 0800613171 (1977)

The God We Never Knew

| 3.7.02
The God We Never Knew: Beyond Dogmatic Religion to a More Authentic Contemporary Faith, by Marcus Borg

The God We Never Knew is simultaneously a fascinating account of one man's spiritual journey from one understanding of God to another and a compact, readable summary of the major trends in theological thinking from the Enlightenment through the present. Marcus Borg, a Jesus scholar and professor of Religion at Oregon State University, uses his own personal experiences as a metaphor for the changes that have taken place in biblical understanding through the centuries.

For years I have sought to resolve the conflict, or tension, in my own mind between modernism and Christianity. Because the modern scientific world view so rigorously and systematically reduces all of reality to what can be measured or observed with the physical senses, Christianity is totally deprived of reality. Yet the heart cries out for a level beyond the material; a longing for the sense that God is real and near and grants life meaning in a very personal way. I think the major reason why some Christians are so threatened by modern scientific theories such as evolution and literary/critical techniques of reading the Bible is because they fear that there is nothing real left to base faith upon when the Bible does not match reality in a very literal way. Part of the reason why I enjoyed The God We Never Knew so much is because Borg's theology is able to incorporate modernism intelligently while critiquing its tendency to reduce everything in the universe to the purely physical. By the same token he is able to view and interpret the Bible in a non-literal yet meaningful way which illustrates a close personal relationship with God that is not only possible but indeed nurturing to Christians daily, strengthening their faith.

As the title suggests, Borg compares and contrasts two different ways of looking at God. One view comprises a distant God "out there," who points his finger at humanity's failings, and demands adherence to a set of beliefs in order to gain acceptance into heaven. This view of God focuses mainly on eternal rewards for earthly deeds, and uses biblical metaphors of king and lord as the primary way of viewing God. Borg's view of God, by contrast, holds that God is close and personal, existing in us and around us as well as "out there," is accepting and nurturing, and focuses on relational rather than propositional truth. Rather than focusing on eternal rewards, Borg suggests that the kingdom of God is here and now around us, and can be visible, if we are willing to look through spiritual eyes.

Surprisingly (for a book primarily about theology) Borg looks cross-culturally to find a number of useful techniques for enhancing one's sense of God being present in personal way to each believer. Borg gives each traditional notion of worship, prayer, and evangelism a helpful tweak when he recommends "sounds in creating an opening to the sacred", "talking to God", and "the dream of God", respectively. According to Borg, spiritual senses need to be practiced and developed because we are used to thinking purely in terms of our physical senses and material reality.

The only glaring critique I have of Borg's book is that it tends to oversimplify the broad range of Christian understanding existing both today and throughout history. Because he uses the Lutheranism of his childhood as the metaphor for a traditional understanding of Christianity, he builds a false dualism--an "either/or" scenario in which it feels like Borg is saying "this is the way Christianity was traditionally conceived...and this is my new conception of it." The footnotes are a helpful corrective, where it becomes apparent that there are myriad positions that can be taken in between these two views. Some passages, however, still feel like Borg is attacking a straw man. More so than in other books, I would recommend reading the footnotes (located at the end of each chapter.) All of the scriptural references are in the footnotes, and since Borg often looks at parts of the Bible that are traditionally underemphasized, you may be as surprised as I was at what is actually in the Bible. Finally, the footnotes provide additional reading sources should you be interested in a particular topic Borg mentions only briefly.

The God We Never Knew is a very useful book on many levels. If you are seeking a way to reconcile modernism and religion, or if you are seeking a readable synopsis of contemporary theology, or if you are interested in reading about one person's spiritual struggle, Borg's book will speak to you.

PUBLISHER: Harper San Francisco; ISBN: 0060610352; Reprint edition (June 1998)

The Complete Gnomes

| 1.7.02
The Complete Gnomes, by Wil Nuygen (text) and Rien Poortvliet (illustrations)

I've loved gnomes for as long as I can remember. It's all because my Auntie had a book on her coffee table called Gnomes (1977) when I was a child. My family would visit her and I'd make a bee-line for the gnome book. Richly illustrated, it was packed full of details about these little creatures --enough for a youth's imagination to bring them to life.

As an adult, I'd sometimes reminisce about the gnome book. I'd look for it in bookstores, but could never find anything like it. So one year my spouse did some sleuthing, and got me The Complete Gnomes (1994), an unabridged compilation of both Gnomes and a later release by Nuygen and Poortvliet, Secrets of the Gnomes (1987), which I never even knew existed. This second section goes beyond a mere compendium of gnome facts and lore, taking the reader into the daily life of some gnomes and the authors as they share some small-scale adventures.

PUBLISHER: Harry N. Abrams, Inc.; ISBN: 0810931958; (October 1994)

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