As Iron Sharpens Iron

An ongoing and online discussion between: an Orthodox informed Ecumaniac without a denominational home, an ordained Baptist youth pastor with an open mind, a Calvinist worship leader/seminarian with a staggering vocabulary and ability to make a point, and a cradle Catholic with a love/hate relationship to Rome.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Review: The Deity Formerly Known as God

I randomly ran across this book at Borders the other day, and picked it up to see what it was all about. The title struck me, Zondervan is usually a good publisher, and the author works with Northpoint Church in Atlanta. That all seemed enticing. I read the back cover and the book purports itself to be "attempting to recapture the spirit of JB Phillips' classic, Your God is Too Small." It claimed to tear down 6 current destructive images of God and reaffirm 6 constructive images of God. So, I shelled out the $13, thinking it would be a good read.

The layout of the book is quite simple and intentional. The first 6 chapters are what the author considers "bad images" of God. They stand completely independent of each other so that the reader can skip around should he/she so choose (page 14). The ideas are on the right track, however, I think it leaves something to be desired.

Chapter 1--The Cop Around the Corner. Mostly story-oriented, this chapter claims we view God in the same way we do a cop parked on the side of the road (20). This idea is that God is actively looking for us to make a mistake. This idea is fosterred in strict religious upbringings, be it church or school (21). This idea is reiterated if you actually read the OT too, in the author's opinion (24). The real problem comes in a little joke/addendum section that appears in each chapter. In this chapter, he gives 6 "made up" commandments that he has picked up along the way in his "faith experience" (a term first used on page 21). This new list of commandments include not drinking, not swearing, going to church and pretending to enjoy it. The real problem is commandment 5: "Thou shalt not have sex before thou art married" (27). To the best of my knowledge, sex before marriage is wrong. The good aspect of this chapter is that there is some truth to us viewing God as an angry God, wanting nothing but catch us doing something wrong. However, this chapter could easily be taken as a manifesto for antinomianism.

Chapter 2--Sweet Old Man. One of the better chapters in the book. He notes that our visual depctions of God often resemble a member or ZZ Top (32). We view God's eternality as being old, not timeless (33). These are great points, and I found myself actively affirming that view of God. That quickly changed. "The Bible doesn't really help in this department either" (33). I couldn't believe that someone who has devoted his life to teaching the Bible would actually make that statement. He argued that the titles "Alpha and Omega," "Ageless and Unchanging," and "Ancient of Days" are bothersome because "old is bothersome" (33). However, this chapter has a great overall point: we view God like we view our grandfather, someone we only have to visit on holidays, someone who doesn't understand where we are, nor can relate to us in our present situation (34). Bible stories become stories about God in the past that don't relate to us today, and the stories of people in our churches relate the way God acted the, not now (37).This is a great point and something that needs to be addressed.

Chapter 3--Cosmic Slot Machine. Here, he writes of the idea that, in life, sometimes we win, sometimes we lose (44, 46). He said the idea that life, and ultimately God, is random, that he hedged his bets to play it safe (48). Everything we do in life is based on the idea that something might go wrong, not on the idea that it might go well. He says that he doesn't know where God falls in control of our lives (51). He also says that he doesn't care if God is in control or not, as long as he's there for us, because that's the God he has faith in (51). This seems more than problematic. A God who is not ultimately in control is not much of a God. How sovereignty works can be debated, but God is ultimately in control, and that's the story of the Bible. However, on the last page of the chapter, he says that if you hedge your bets with God, you will always win (52). At the end of this chapter, I was left wondering exactly what was going on.

Chapter 4--Talent Show Judge. Mostly full of stories about church talent shows, some quite funny. The idea here is that we view God as a judge who is never quite satisfied with our performance, and our churches often reflect that in guilting others to contribute more in every way (57-58). He gives his story of (over)working at Willow Creek 60-61). The tragedy of this view is that we work ourselves to death trying to earn from God what he has already given to us; instead, we are really trying to impress ourselves (64). This is another good point, as I know I have seen may Christians burnt out from over-extending themselves in serving at the church. We should all learn to stop and enjoy God more.

Chapter 5--All You Can Eat Buffett. This is probably the best and most relevant chapter in the entire book. The idea Stevens is arguing is that we currently have a spiritual smorgasboard, where we come and gather many ideas of God, developing what we personally want to see God as.This is why 90% of Americans can believe in God, because ultimately God is of our own making (70, 74). He compared biblical faith with an enormously expensive meal--you have great things, and things that are hard to swallow, but the meal is magnificent and so much greater than the ordinary, mundane and bland (74). The only way to worship God is to worship him in his fullness, as he is inseparably whole (74).

Chapter 6--Our Parents, Supersized. In my opinion, the second best chapter in this entire book. The basic assertion, parent's indubitably affect their children's views of God--for better or for worse (77). He speaks of several ways his parents subtly, and often accidentally, affected his view of God. He gives several examples of how others he knows have had their view of God affected in this way. The question, not of "if" but "how" (77) is a big question and one worth facing (84) if we are to rid ourselves of our surrogate gods (86). He is careful to say that we cannot turn this into a pity-party or blame everyone else for our problems, but we must look at the effects of others in forming our understanding of God.

There is a brief note in between the sections that lets the reader know he will be using stories of Jesus to construct the 6 positive sections about God.

Chapter 7--Late Night Neighbor. He uses the story from Luke 11 of a man going to his neighbor in the middle of the night, asking for bread. Much of the text is spent retelling the story--much of the time going back and forth from ancient to modern language. He finally speaks of the generosity of God, and taunts the idea of smothering prayer with "If it be your will" (99). He says we should have a holy fear, but we can approach God with confidence (99) and that Jesus wants to give us what he's already promised us (102). The best part of this chapter is a story about a trip he and his wife took to Africa. They stayed in a village of people suffering from AIDS, yet when the women pray they ask God with confidence, citing "because of what you've done." This is a great lesson we could all stand to learn in a culture where every time the wind blows in the wrong direction, we question God's abilities to control things.

Chapter 8--Lord of the Boardroom. He retells the story from Luke 19 about the master leaving and giving his servants silver. The first two servants make money with their silver and are entrusted with more. The last servant buries it in fear of losing it, and the master is irate. Stevens then notes that the story is as puzzling as it is helpful (111). He goes on to talk about assumptions we make (112-113). The conclusion reached by the authoris that this story shows how God is both just and generous, keeping us accountable and forgiving us when we fall short (115). Then, "the moral of our story, that in a world filled with pain and fear and confusion, there is a God who is more good, more generous and more full of grace than we could possibly imagine" 116).

Chapter 9--Green-Thumbed Gardener. After a long story about his attempts at gardening, he quotes John 15:1, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener" (probably the Message translation). Stevens uses this as a view of our sanctification (121). He goes on to say that Christ is teaching us to "stay" (124). "Connectedness starves our selfishness" (125). The only problem in this chapter is that all the talk of pruning is our personal sanctification. The reality of the passage is that God will sanctify his church, tossing out those who do not bear fruit.

Chapter 10--Single Minded Shepherd. The passage used here is Luke 15, though many other references are made. The point, we are lost and Jesus comes after us. The point is made and reiterated by several personal stories of being lost. The most interesting thing in this chapter is a story about a Hurricane Katrina victim. The man was trying to get out of New Orleans after a week of being stranded, but wasn't allowed to get on the bus with his pet--he would have to leave the pet. Nate Berkus, a correspondent for Oprah, decided to help, so he went down there, picked up the man's dog and followed the bus (139-140). This was supposedly some insight into Jesus (and Oprah, who is mentioned in a marvelous light multiple times in the book). However, I must admit that I was left wondering, "If the man was so great, why didn't he give the dog AND ITS OWNER a ride?" But, the story shows how great Oprah is and how the story is not about self-promotion (140), but I'm not buying that.

Chapter 11--Tired Eyed Father. This chapter recounts the story of the Prodigal Son. He makes the point that we musn't focus on the son, but on the Father (142). He retells the story, again, and spends most of the time explaining the term "Abba." He says that "the life of Jesus was radically defined by the love of his Abba" 149). While there is great import in the name Abba, he radically dimishes Christ's deity with statements like this. He says the Abba loved Jesus at his baptism before Jesus did anything (149). This just has serious trappings of Arianism or adoptionism. In the garden, Abba's love for Jesus enabled him to trust his way, and Christ went to the cross (152). More Arian hermenuetics. There were some good points in this chapter. We should realize that we are talking to a personal God in prayer (151). We should know that God loves us as his children (154).

Chapter 12--Equal Opportunity Employer. The story in this chapter is that of the employer hiring day laborers and each worker made the same amount, the first and the last. He spends much time retelling the story, concluding that everybody wins with God (164). It's not universalism, but that the best, worst, first and last in God's kingdom are equal (165). The idea--we cant' earn our way to God, grace is the only option (though it's not stated nearly that clearly).

Conclusion: Overall, this book was an extreme letdown. As an attempt to recapture the classic it purports, it fails--miserably. There are good points, but they were not expounded well. Most of the book is full of stories from his life. I know, we live in a postmodern society and stories are the way to communicate. However, a little more substance in this book would probably help smooth over the theological issues. I think I found one verse that isn't from the Message Bible. That version is such a liberal translation that it should not be used for teaching. The author, as are many others today, just flips from happy verse to happy verse. God is nothing but the "big warm fuzzy, do whatever you want, it doesn't matter to me" character. I couldn't recommend this book to anyone. I hate that. I like Andy Stanley, Louie Giglio and that ministry. But, this was a severe letdown.

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