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Hear the Difference

| 21.9.04
Hear the Difference? By Robert Hansen

Sometimes one is called to write a book to correct what one perceives as an imbalance in the conventional way of thinking. In “Hear the Difference?” Robert Hansen contends that what we think is the gospel in reality is something less. This not only tends to make an idol out of whatever it is we are substituting for the gospel, but it flattens the mystery that is the gospel, causing us not to see and hear the kingdom of heaven that is at hand all around us, and preventing us from loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind. While difficult to define, Hansen maintains that the true gospel by definition must transcend every category and resist efforts to put it in terms other than itself.

So what is the difference between the Christian gospel and everything else? Hansen suggests that it is a unique way of hearing --hearing others, and hearing the biblical texts. It is not self-esteem, change, acceptance, "keeping it real," utilitarianism, experience, reason, positive thinking, good intentions, or myriad other forms of seeking. To emphasize something such as change as the heart of the gospel is to subordinate it to an imported category –-and for Hansen the gospel must never be subordinate. Painstakingly aware that to proclaim the gospel may actually prevent others from hearing it as it truly is, Hansen gives us the sense that we must listen to others and to the biblical texts more deeply and differently than we have ever listened before.

Hansen finds the gospel crystallized in Jesus' saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But what is repenting? While the dominant ideology today sees repenting as the need to change oneself, the need to accept oneself, or an attempt to strike a balance between acceptance and changing, Hansen points out that all of these are cut of the same cloth. “Our active, all embracing way of hearing embraces what is different and turns it into more of what we already do” (p. 53) To be able to truly see the realm of God and to respond to it transcends all worries regarding change, acceptance, or anything in between. “It is not by doing, thinking, believing, experiencing, or having any of them that separation from [God] is ended.” (p. 64) The heart of the gospel is to depend on God, and accept God as God is, without having any expectations of God. When things go badly or when things go well, we are confronted with the question: Do we trust God? Or do we trust in things going well or things going badly? What is non-negotiable for us? What we see as non-negotiable is our gospel.

The bulk of the book consists of Hansen's critique of various ways the gospel is transformed for the worst by would-be evangelists. He is critical of pastors and churches who try to frame the gospel in terms of everyday life, because that puts “keeping it real” above the gospel. Another way people bend the gospel is to hear it as “whatever works for me.” While in the Reformation era theologians argued about grace versus works, in our era the dividing line is “what works versus what doesn't work.” (p.117) If grace is “what works” is that not just works? Hansen says that to really hear grace, one must realize that nothing works, but grace comes from God. “It is not a matter of whatever we may do, think, experience, or have. None of them will do it. . . the Christian gospel says it is a matter of God --God's grace in Jesus Christ.” (p. 129)

Insofar as choice is something we do, it misses the point. “For we are not saved by our decisions, any more than we are saved by our actions, our inclinations or intentions, positive thinking, change, acceptance or by doing the best we can. That's the whole point: we are saved by God. God is the savior, not our choosing,” (p. 158) “Even if our will is free, even if it can and does indeed make choices, this does not mean that it is within its power to bring us salvation.” (p. 165) Drawing upon Martin Luther, Hansen drives the point home that repenting is different from choosing. Repenting is turning from anything but God, to God.

While Hansen's prose sometimes seems cumbersome and would greatly benefit from a more ruthless redactor, his message is both timely and timeless. In an age of polarized and competing religious ideologies, a gospel heard through deep and compassionate listening has never been more welcome. In a culture where individualism, self-help and choice reign supreme, it was refreshing to see the gospel presented in a way that attempts to transcend all that. Finally, Hansen succeeds in calling the reader to hear the gospel anew and afresh.

PUBLISHER: Xlibris Corporation, 2000. ISBN: 1-4010-8214-9

The Strange Redemption of Sister Mary Ann

| 6.9.04
'The Strange Redemption of Sister Mary Ann,' by Mike Moscoe

This haunting eight page tale of a woman looking back on a full, long life while suffering through the terminal stages of cancer barely qualifies as science fiction, at least on first glance. What science there is gets developed as she questions some of the choices she made to delay childbirth through birth control and have children through in-virtro fertilization. Her culminating life choice of joining a convent in her twilight years definitely challenges prevailing notions of the role of traditional religion in modern society. Yet author Mike Moscoe provides no easy answers, instead preferring to let us live with the tension the questions evoke. As such 'The Strange Redemption of Sister Mary Ann' is a beautiful, evocative and wistful tale that stirs the emotions and supports further reflection.

Mary Ann's life, up until the end, has been full, rich, and rewarding. A successful career, wonderful husband, happy children, and satisfying sex life symbolize the American dream and all that scientific and material abundance promise. It isn't until her husband dies and she is diagnosed with cancer that Mary Ann starts to question the potential cost of these choices, and starts to be haunted by the images of her unborn children in her dreams. Perhaps hoping to resolve the tension between her faith and her life actions, Mary Ann joins a convent where she leads a life of inward and outward piety, all the while struggling with ethical, philosophical, and theological questions. Where does life begin? What is the nature of existence after death? Do theologians have anything meaningful to offer?

I'm continually impressed by good efforts to integrate broader sociological, spiritual, and psychological questions into science fiction. Roscoe is not an author I remember reading before, but I'll be sure to be on the lookout for his works in the future.

PUBLISHER: Analog Science Fiction and Fact (Astounding); Dell Publishers; ISSN: 10592113 (November, 2004)

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