Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

When I was in seminary, one of the things that drove me nuts was when professors would write, “Further explanation” or “More details” on a paper.  You asked me to summarize Church history in 5 pages!  Of course I could have added more!  It’s unfair to have expectations beyond the set limits.  Anyway, I don’t recount these sentiments for my own catharsis, but to make a point.  I’ve been given the opportunity to receive a free copy of Michael WilliamsHow to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens thanks to Zondervan on the condition that I would read and review the book on my blog along with a number of other bloggers.  And the topic that Dr. Williams is addressing is one that could fill the pages of a bookshelf worth of books: “How does the whole Bible witness to Jesus?”  This is what Dr. Williams calls the “Jesus Lens.”  Pointing to John 5:39 and Luke 24:27, Dr. Williams asserts, “Reading the Bible through the Jesus lens is reading it the way it was intended.”  To show how all 66 of the Bible’s books point to Jesus is quite a task.  So as I review the book, I am going to try to keep in mind my seminary experiences and the size of the task at hand in order to be fair and helpful.

For starters, I really appreciate the idea of the book.  Dr. Williams is clearly writing to Christians who believe that the whole Bible points to Jesus.  (I do, in fact, believe this.  The reason I signed up for the blog tour was because I was preaching on this idea right around the time I received notice of the book).  Particularly, he seeks to provide a resource for Christians regardless of how theologically trained they are, and I think he achieves his goal of “avoid[ing] the usual dry, data-intensive introduction to the Bible…” (p. 9).  Dr. Williams has written a quite accessible, easy-to-read book.

One of the other aspects of the book I appreciated was the effort to illustrate what all the Bible’s talk about Jesus means for us.  This, for me, was an unexpected and pleasant surprise.  Dr. Williams doesn’t let the reader settle for having knowledge about the Bible and Jesus.  He rightly takes the next step to “consider what the fulfillment in Christ must necessarily entail for believers, who are being conformed to his likeness” (p. 10).  So I applaud Dr. Williams for this approach.

Yet, as I worked my way through the book and listened to Dr. Williams apply the “Jesus Lens” to each book of the Bible, I could not get past a feeling of disappointment.  So I decided to apply the words I offer couples in Marriage Preparation sessions: disappointment often comes from expectations, examine your expectations.  What was I expecting of this book that contributed to my disappointment?  And were they fair expectations?  Well, part of my excitement about The Jesus Lens stemmed from my enthusiasm for the other books in the “How to Read the Bible…” series, in particular Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart’s How to Read the Bible Book by Book.  This book resides in our church library, on my shelf, and in the collections of numerous congregants who have acted on my recommendation of it.  Book by Book–about 180 pages longer than The Jesus Lens–points out the basics of each biblical book (author, date, main themes, etc.) and then summarize the structure of each book.  I find Book by Book–while perhaps a bit “dry” and “data-intensive”–to be an incredibly valuable reference material for lay people.  That’s what I was expecting from Jesus Lens: a reference material that would equip people for personal Bible study, that small group leaders could print off before they entered into a new study, and a resource that would give people categories to understand the Christ-centered direction of the Scriptures. My disappointment, I think, came when I realized that The Jesus Lens read more like a devotional or sermon.

For instance, instead of developing categories for how the Bible points to Jesus, The Jesus Lens takes one overarching theme from each book (many of which are debatable) and finds a New Testament texts that make the same point about Jesus.  For me, the problem with this is it leaves a number of curious omissions: no connection of the Passover in Exodus to Jesus, minimal reference to how genealogies shape the Story, no allusion to messianic Psalms, no discussion of how the structure of Acts presents the life of the Church as a mirror of the life of Jesus in Luke, no note of the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2, and no hint that John’s Gospel presents Jesus as the fulfillment of numerous Old Testament events and symbols (ie. Passover Lamb, templebronze serpentManna, the Water and Light at the Feast of Tabernacles,  Shepherd, etc.).   In fact, in the Pentateuch (Genesis-Deuteronomy) chapters, there are as many quotations from Romans 7 as from the Gospels.  All of these are confusing to me as they are Christ-centered moments of the Scriptures that I would want Bible readers and small group leaders to pick up on with the help of a resource like The Jesus Lens.

Since each blogger has agreed to focus on a particular section of the Bible, I’ll show more what I mean (plusses and minuses) as I focus on the prophetic books:

  • Some of the prophetic books were some of the The Jesus Lens’ best chapters, in my opinion.  For instance, Amos might have been my favorite in the whole book.  Part of the reason was its connection to a Gospel (Matthew).  Dr. Williams showed how Amos’ oracles against false religion are connected to Jesus’ heart focus in his Kingdom Community vision in the Sermon on the Mount and in the holistic nature of Jesus’ ministry (proclamation, compassion, healing).  Habakkuk and Malachi were other high notes for me, partly because they emphasized Jesus as the Revelation of God, not just how Jesus benefited us.
  • In part, the above books stood out–in my opinion–because too much of the rest of the book is using a “Substitutionary Atonement/Imputation Lens” instead of a “Jesus Lens.”  Now, I am a subscriber to Substitutionary Atonement (Jesus took on the death-punishment I deserved for my sins, so that I could be forgiven and live out Christ’s life) as a valid interpretation of the Cross.  But I do think this understanding of Jesus’ life and death can be overemphasized.  The overemphasis shows up in Hosea, a book about God’s almost unbelievable mercy and faithfulness, when Dr. Williams writes, “We may take comfort in knowing that the faithfulness of Jesus is counted as our own” (p. 115-116).  Yes, I believe it is.  But it would have seemed less forced to me to say, “We may take comfort in knowing that the Cross shows God’s faithfulness to us even when we have been unfaithful to him.” (See also Proverbs, “[Jesus] is the wise one whose wisdom is credited to us before God…” [p. 80])
  • Isaiah is a long book; so here I tread lightly in seeking to be fair.  In the “Jesus Lens” section of the chapter, however, Dr. Williams chooses only to focus on Jesus as the Immanuel (God with Us) of Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23.  I agree with this connection, but it is an extremely limited way of connecting Isaiah to Christ.  I was rather shocked that Isaiah 61:1-3  (a passage that Jesus reads and applies to himself!), was completely neglected both in chapters on Isaiah and Luke.  Isaiah 52-53 is mentioned, but not in the “Jesus Lens” section, even though it would have been a far more natural link to Jesus’ sacrificial death than other links proposed in the book.  Isaiah (alongside the Psalms) is a clear illustration of where I think Dr. Williams’ approach (choosing one theme per book to apply to Jesus) falls short of truly equipping the reader with a Jesus lens.  And this leads me to my final thoughts…

How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens succeeds in its emphasis on application (not just information), its structure (background-theme-Jesus Lens-application), and its readability.  At the same time, it is not what I was hoping for.  I was hoping for a book that captured the rich, subtle, brilliant, artistic, and decidedly storied ways the Scriptures point to Christ, an accessible but more comprehensive resource for Bible-readers to understand the Christ-focus of the Bible.  In other words, something more like what Fee and Stuart have done in Book by Book.  Dr. Williams offers a more devotional book.  It is a better read from cover to cover than Book by Book, but I don’t think it is as valuable of a reference material.  The category shift to “reference material” would have allowed a little more space (Book by Book is longer, but it still allows someone who wants to better understand a book to get lots of help in 4-12 pages), the option of bullet-pointing some of the diverse ways the Scriptures point to Christ, and introducing some new language that would give Bible-readers some new categories with which to discover Jesus in their Bible reading.

We do have some great materials out there for people who want to understand how the Bible’s pieces fit together to reveal a picture of Jesus.  Not least among these is Sally Lloyd-Jones’ Jesus Storybook Bible (super accessible) and Graeme Goldsworthy’s According to Plan (a bit more academic than The Jesus Lens).  How to Read the Bible through the Jesus Lens will be added to this collection.  But I’m still looking for that resource that goes both deeper and broader into the Christ-focus of the Bible’s Story for the average Bible reader.

Discussion with Dr. Williams on his book:

“What is the Gospel?”

Before you get too far into this blog, I would encourage you to pull out a piece of paper or pull up a word processing screen and try to answer this question yourself.  It is the question at the heart of The King Jesus Gospel (KJG), by Dr. Scot McKnight, professor at Northpark University and author of numerous books and the widely read blog, Jesus Creed.

Now, if you have written/typed out your own Gospel summary (as Dr. McKnight urges in ch. 1), ask yourself these questions:

  • How much of my gospel is about Jesus and how much is about me (how I respond, benefit, etc.)?
  • Is the Old Testament irrelevant and unnecessary to my gospel?
  • Do I have trouble figuring out how a life of discipleship fits with my gospel?
  • How easily does my gospel fit into the message of the Gospels, Acts, Paul, and the creeds of the early church (Nicene, Apostle’s, etc.)?
  • Does my gospel have trouble fitting in biblical concepts like Israel, Messiah, Lord, Resurrection, or final judgment?
Largely speaking as an evangelical to evangelicals (see this definition footnoted in the book), Dr.  McKnight laments,
 ”I believe the word gospel has been hijacked by what we believe about ‘personal salvation,’ and the gospel itself has been reshaped to facilitate making ‘decisions.’  The result of this hijacking is that the word gospel no longer means in our world what it originally meant to either Jesus or the apostles…Our system is broken and our so-called gospel broke it.  We can’t keep trying to improve the mechanics of the system because they’re not the problem.  The problem is that the system is doing what it should do because it is energized by a badly shaped gospel.” (26)
And so, KJG is Dr. McKnight’s call and attempt to un-reshape our gospel so that it reflects the gospel of Jesus and the early church.  Recovering this gospel is critical to if we hope to dissolve many of the American Church’s sources of division and confusion or at least have a better framework to address those that are left.   What do I think?…
1) The King Jesus Gospel does get at the heart of the Church: our message and mission.  As an alum of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Campus Crusade for Christ as well as a near-lifetime member and now a pastor in the United Church of Christ along with having experiences in a variety of other American Christian contexts, I can agree that our gospel(s) are often “pale reflection[s] of the gospel of Jesus and the apostles” (24).

As Dr. McKnight points out, whether it is the “4 Spiritual Laws” or some form of liberation theology, our niche gospels tend to cause us to twist or ignore other parts of the Bible’s story.  Dr. McKnight warns us against binding the gospel to our methods of persuasion or a system of theological facts, confusing the gospel with the personal benefits the gospel might bring (ie. justification by faith/forgiveness of sins), and making the gospel more about me and how I respond than it is about Jesus.  Rather, he wants us to see the gospel of the New Testament as a story, namely “the Story of Jesus as the resolution of Israel’s Story” (see diagram). Only when we understand Jesus as a part of the Bible’s Story can we understand him as a part of our individual stories.  Beyond that, KJG is a call to let the biblical gospel form our gospels instead of taking one particular way of communicating the gospel, one particular way of responding to the gospel, or one particular way of experiencing the gospel as the whole of the gospel itself.  Looking at the divisions and strange renditions of the gospel within the American Church, it is hard to ignore the need to examine the gospel at the heart (hopefully) of our church communities.

2) For all of Dr. McKnight’s passion for clarifying  ”gospel,” however, I wish he had been as careful with “salvation.”  He readily notes that he is using the term “salvation” only in the manner in which he sees it typically used in evangelical circles (eg. “I got saved at a revival meeting when I admitted my sins and accepted Jesus as my Savior”).  But even with this acknowledgement, KJG neglects the wonderful dimensions of “salvation” in the Bible’s Story.  I understand the difference Dr. McKnight highlights between Christian communities that overly focus on who is saved/in or unsaved/out and gospel cultures that embrace real discipleship (see diagram); I would just rather he did not dub the former “salvation cultures.”

By using “salvation” as shorthand for “a personal decision in which I admit my sin and receive Jesus as Savior,” now “salvation” is getting hijacked right along with “gospel.”  I would rather we recover the richness of “Salvation” in the Bible’s Story.  In fact, one might accurately say that the Story of the Bible is a Salvation Story–a bigger category than “gospel.”   Jesus’ name means, literally, “Yahweh Saves.”  Biblical salvation, I believe, has individual, communal, societal, ecological, and cosmic layers that are being mined and lived out within our church communities as we speak.  Perhaps Dr. McKnight might find a term with less biblical richness to describe communities focused solely on the personal/individual dimensions of the term.
3) A couple years ago, I downloaded an mp3 called “Scot McKnight on the Whole Gospel,” and as I listened, I thought, “This is good news!”  I believe Dr. McKnight has a great gift for gospeling (his term for evangelism or telling the gospel story), and that was a big part of my desire to read KJG.  Some of the themes I heard in that mp3 are drawn out in KJG as well, and they are some of my favorite moments in the book.  In many ways, the theme of the book is that the gospel is a story (Jesus’) within a story (the Bible/Israel’s) that only makes sense within that story and should be told as a story.  As Dr. McKnight writes,
“When the plan gets separated from the story, the plan almost always becomes abstract, propositional, logical, rational, and philosophical and, most importantly, de-storified and unbiblical” (62).
Are logic, propositions, rationality, and even abstractness bad things?  I don’t think so, and I don’t believe Dr. McKnight thinks so either.  Certainly, propositions can help our minds to understand truth and I would hope that rationality should play some role in what we choose to believe.  But, what happens when we trade the gospel story for gospel facts is that we are really preparing for a test be taken, not a life to be lived.  Dr. McKnight wants to invite us into a gospel life.  Any reader will benefit from having him take us back to the beginning of the Story and God’s purpose for humanity (to be his representatives: Eikons/Priests), so that we can then see why and how the Story of Jesus restores us to this purpose.  In other words, God did not create humans so that we would simply not be sinful.  He created us for something far more wonderful.  And while sin gets in the way and thus must be dealt with, that is not the end of what Jesus came to do.  This is the problem with a gospel that is a “Good-Friday-only gospel” (55) or a gospel that is restricted to “justification by faith alone.”  I would encourage anyone to read or listen to a little gospeling from Dr. McKnight!
4) As a corollary to the last point, I am grateful to Dr. McKnight for generally not falling into the black hole of false dichotomies that plague theological, psychological, political and lots of other “ical” debates in our culture.  ”This, not That” is not the tone of KJG.  Rather, we are asked to consider “That in the context of This rather than This in the context of That.”  In essence, he wants to let Paul, Jesus, and the apostles of Acts define the gospel for themselves before we compare them to each other.  And in so doing, Dr. McKnight convincingly argues that the whole New Testament, quite cohesively, proclaims the Story of Jesus as the fulfillment of the Bible’s Story.  That, then, is the gospel.  And from that foundation, we are invited to draw out the implications the gospel has on our personal standing before God, society, ecology, and more.  This is a very specific gospel with magnificent implications.  And I think that Christians along the American Church spectrum would do well to consider taking this approach to the gospel rather than choosing one of the implications and calling it “the gospel.”
5) One question that arose for me in my reading of KJG was whether “The Story of Jesus has resolved Israel’s Story!” really glows as good news to the average person in our culture.  We must consider that most of the sermons in Acts were reinterpreting and applying the Story of Israel for Jews who pretty well knew that story.  Dr. McKnight is a gifted teller of the gospel story as I have already indicated.  What I would ask, though, is whether the gospel story isn’t more of “The Story of Jesus resolving the World’s Story.”  In fact, I might say that the New Testament (from Jesus to Peter to Paul) critiques Jews who failed to understand Israel’s Story in the context of the World’s Story.  This is really the Story I hear Dr. McKnight telling as he “sketches the gospel” in chapter 10.  As we understand how Israel fits into the World’s Story, then we can see how Jesus enters into and resolves both.  This, I believe, is the ultimate in Good News.
In his foreword, NT Wright describes “the revolution that Scot is proposing” as “massive” (12).  Yet, as helpful as I found this book for some of the reasons mentioned here and more, I’m not sure I agree that it is a “massive revolution.”  Since I “joined” the evangelical world about 9 years ago, I have heard many voices discussing a more robust and biblical understanding of the Gospel, decrying a “gospel of sin-management,” demanding that we develop a vision of God’s work that takes into account the whole Story.  And Dr. McKnight not only cites, but introduces us to many of these voices.  I don’t think KJG is revolutionary…and I think that’s a good thing.  We don’t need more people distinguishing themselves and their ideas from everyone else’s.  We need more people who are contributing to the community of God’s people by calling us into the real Story and helping us to live out the implications of that Story in creative, dynamic, and transformative ways.  Scot McKnight has been doing that for years, and it is this spirit that comes through in KJG.
Personally, I think evangelicalism is doing a pretty fair job of critiquing itself in this cultural moment, and KJG is a positive building block in that process.  I would like to see how KJG would be applied to the blind spots in Christian communities beyond evangelicalism.  How does this speak a prophetic word to a progressive Christian community like the United Church of Christ, or an emergent Christian community, or rural, suburban, and urban Christian communities?  I would appreciate Dr. McKnight’s perspectives in these different contexts.  For now, I look forward to taking The King Jesus Gospel as excellent groundwork to examine the gospel at the heart of the community in which I live and serve  as we seek to develop a culture that proclaims, lives, and reflects the gospel story of Jesus.
See excerpts, summaries, and even more from Scot McKnight on The King Jesus Gospel:
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What do we do with Colton Burpo, whose story of his trip to heaven and back is the topic of NY Times Bestseller Heaven Is for Real?  Do we shout his story from the rooftops?  Laugh at the childlike certainty with which he tells such a story?  Dismiss the story and the family for fabricating this get-rich-quick scheme?  

Heaven Is for Real is written by Colton’s dad, Pastor Todd Burpo, along with author Lynn Vincent.  It’s a quick read of 154 pages and the story is well told.  Actually, about the first 60 pages are the story of the Burpo family and the many trials they had undergone over a short period of time which culminated in a life-changing stint in the hospital for their 3-year-old son, Colton.  Colton had a stomach ache that went misdiagnosed and mistreated for five days before doctors realized that his appendix had burst.  On the verge of death, Colton underwent emergency surgery (actually two) before making a miraculous comeback.  Only a good while after the surgery do Todd and Sonja (Colton’s parents) begin to notice clues that Colton had experienced something supernatural during that first surgery.  And little by little, the rest of the book follows Todd and Sonja as they unpack their son’s heavenly memories over the next couple of years.

So what do we do with Colton’s story?  I’ll try to respond to three potential responses I’ve noted above and then offer my own:

1. Shout it from the rooftops!  Some will read this story and be utterly convinced: yet another proof that the Bible is true and heaven is for real.  But before you buy 10 copies to hand out to all your unbelieving co-workers, let’s just hold off for a moment.  Back in my blog about Jim Tressel, I wrote about Christians’ short-sighted tendency to jump on the back of the latest “Christian celebrity,” assuming that God must be using them for big things.  This book came out in November 2010 and by March it had reached #1 on the NY Times Bestseller list.  Obviously, it has popular appeal, especially to Christians who already believe in the heaven Colton is telling us about.  But consider your unbelieving friends.  They have heard numerous tales of near-death experiences, testimonies about heaven and hell, enlightenment, nirvana, etc.–probably some of these from followers of other religions.  God does have the power to use these stories, but it may not be what God wants to use in the life of your friends and family right now.  Books like this can easily become another way for Christians to avoid the cross-carrying, sometimes maddeningly slow process of becoming a loving, faithful, Christ-like person, patiently waiting for the Spirit to soften and prepare another person’s heart.  In this era of the Balloon Boy, people are skeptical of a story from some previously and personally unknown family from rural Nebraska.  God’s primary design for spreading the Kingdom is by forming people who love others, seek justice for the oppressed, and live out the Gospel Story in word and deed.  This is the Story we shout from the rooftops and are called to verify with transformed lives.

Furthermore, without getting too much into theological questions, there is a good bit of Colton’s experience that has a very distinct midwest 20-21st-century American flavor to it.  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  I wouldn’t be surprised that rural midwestern-American Christians have a lot right that people in the ivory towers (or my own pulpit) don’t.  Or perhaps God was speaking to that time and place in their own understanding, offering encouragement more than theological correction.  But I don’t think we should go too far beyond that.  This story may be an encouragement to those whose faith is firmly rooted in the Gospel Story and maybe even a story that makes doubters think and consider the Gospel.  It is not a sufficient grounds of faith in and of itself.  It is not the foundation of Christian belief–Jesus is.   So I think it would be wise to refrain from building too much of our own theology, faith, or mission/evangelistic hopes on this story’s foundation.

2. Laugh at Colton’s childlike certainty.  Many will approach this story as a cute, warm-fuzzy story in the “Kids say the darndest things” category.  I think there is more to the story than that.  Really, the book deals with some heavy issues: Colton reassuring his mother that his unborn sister was in heaven (who was miscarried before they knew what her sex was), Todd’s very real struggle with God as he faced the loss of his son on the tail of a number of other trials, the generosity of a community coming around a family burdened by medical bills, even Colton’s disclosure to his dad that the Holy Spirit sent down power when he preached.  One of the most striking moments of the book is when Colton explains to his dad why he was yelling for him coming out of surgery: “Jesus came to get me.  He said I had to go back because he was answering your prayer.”  Honestly, I almost teared up just considering this illustration of what I already “believe”: God hears our prayers and lovingly responds.

Then there is Colton’s childlike, but profound description of Good Friday: “Well, Jesus told me he died on the cross so we could go see his Dad.”  I love two things about this quote: 1) It very simply gets at the heart of why Jesus went to the cross, and 2) Wouldn’t that be how Jesus would explain it to a child?  When Jesus teaches us about God and his Kingdom, he puts it into terms we can understand.  There is plenty of complexity in the Scriptures, but even its most complex moments are surely a simplified “incarnation” of the Truth, written so that our limited human minds might understand something as unlimited as God.  As Caedmon’s Call sings, “Most things true are simple and complex, so it is with You, what else should I expect?”  The Gospel is surely broader and more complex than Colton’s statement, but it is also just that simple at the same time.

3. Dismiss this fabricated get-rich-quick scheme.  Undoubtedly, many will take this approach.  As I mentioned, many non-Christians will remain unconvinced and fall into this category or #2.  But I can also see some Christians whose skepticism leads to this conclusion.  One of the Burpos’ first clues into Colton’s experience occurred when Todd was on his way to perform a funeral for a man he only vaguely knew: “Colton’s face bunched up in a terrible twist of worry.  ’He had to have Jesus in his heart!  He had to know Jesus or he can’t get into heaven!’”  Or after affirming that he had seen Satan, “Colton’s body went rigid, he grimaced, and his eyes narrowed to a squint.  He stopped talking…he absolutely shut down, and that was it for the night.”  In this same section, he speaks of a coming battle in which the men fight the powers of evil.  Some will not like some of this theology (I hesitate at times when biblical passages are applied to Colton’s vision).  But for those who aren’t sure about the theology, neither is Pastor Todd.  Throughout the book, one gets the picture that Colton’s dad didn’t quite know what to do with Colton’s experience either.  He is not dogmatic on all the points of theology, but seems to be trying to figure out how to square the childlike descriptions of heaven with what the Bible has to say.  The author is appropriately humble both in how he writes the book and in the non-threatening/leading manner in which he and his wife say they approached the topic with their son.  He even admits to being a bit embarrassed at times (like when Colton insists on the necessity of knowing Jesus at the funeral home).

Is it possible that this is a fabrication?  I suppose, but I don’t find any real reason to come to this conclusion.  There are so many wonderfully unexpected moments as Colton describes his experience: of heaven (lots of colors!), Jesus’ hands and feet (they have marker on them), God the Father (“God is the biggest one there is.  And he really, really loves us, Dad.  You can’t belieeeeve how much he loves us!”), and the Holy Spirit (what does the Holy Spirit look like?  ”Hmm, that’s kind of a hard one…he’s kind of blue.”)  After rejecting countless pictures of Jesus over the years, Colton fixates on one done by a young art prodigy, who also claims to have received visions of heaven.  Todd’s account of Colton’s experiences emphasizes aspects of the faith, Jesus, and heaven that I would not expect from someone trying to scam America (though you never know, I guess).  As much as the story has some culture-bound moments, I was impressed with many theologically viable and refreshing observations that fit biblically without over-literalizing those biblical texts.

Heaven Is for Real frankly left me wondering, “What do I do with this?”  In many ways, I want to believe it.  In others, I find myself drawn away in skepticism.  I find myself, however, warning myself against one particular reason for skepticism: rejecting this simply because it is a supernatural experience.  Rudolf Bultmann was a 20th century New Testament scholar.  One of his approaches to the practice of biblical interpretation was called “demythology.”  Bultmann thought that in order to make Christianity more palatable to an increasingly empirical, scientific age, we should downplay the importance or reality of anything “supernatural” in the Scriptures.  This approach has had a great deal of influence in more liberal strands of Western Christianity.  We may even be a little embarrassed when we come to passages in the Bible that speak of Resurrection, healing, casting out demons, or visions.  Yet, Jesus and the biblical writers are very clear on the reality of the spiritual realm.  The prophecies of Joel, played out at Pentecost insist on God’s working through his people through visions and dreams.  And whether we accept the Burpos’ story or not, as Christians we can boldly and courageously affirm that God may and does, in fact, work through people’s lives supernaturally.  I believe the Scriptures give us some firm ground for evaluating the validity of these claims of supernatural intervention, but even then we must come to the Scriptures humbly, allowing ourselves to be corrected in our interpretations and systems.  In this way, we follow John’s advice: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God.”

Personally, I find encouragement in Colton’s story.  There are a number of refreshingly profound and theologically sound moments in the book.  And it makes sense to me.  In explaining The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the Virgin Mary states, “through you [Emily], many will come to see that the realm of the spirit is real.”  I don’t know if Emily Rose’s or Colton’s stories are true, but it fits with my understanding of God from the Scriptures that he might send a message to our very materialistic and empirical culture that there is something more.  God may use this story to move some people into a real faith and discipleship.  And it wouldn’t be wholly unlike God to do it through an energetic, sword-loving, rural Nebraskan four-year-old.





The City of GodChrist and Culture.  There are more.  But these two books, one from the 4th century and one from the 20th, illustrate the point: Christians have been thinking about how Christ and culture relate since…well…since Christ entered culture on that first Christmas.  As usual, our ancestors in the faith have come to many bona fide (some not so bona fide) ways to live out this relationship.  And every so often, some cultural phenomenon breathes fresh oxygen onto the embers of this debate.

On a related note, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (part 2) came out at midnight this past Friday morning.  Some of the numbers surrounding these books and movies are truly staggering.  Much has been made of Christians who have shunned the whole Harry Potter empire as satanic or a glorification of witchcraft.  And while we can always count on getting a good laugh at those silly “fundamentalists,” let me suggest that their position at least shows some degree of thoughtfulness about how Christians live out their faith in a culture has the potential to both reflect God and undermine genuine Christianity.  Let’s look quickly at a spectrum of how Christians might relate to culture:

1. Crusades to Conquistadors.  Christians have at times believed their mission to be a conquering of cultures (whether spiritually or politically) in the name of Christ.  In this view, Christianity (often closely intertwined with one’s own culture of origin) sees other cultures as completely blind and without God and in need of a total overhaul.  Here is where Harry-Potter-haters come into play.  They see one hint of sin (witchcraft, in this case) in a cultural product and see that as reason enough to reject or seek to destroy it.  We’ll call this group “Purists.”

2. “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”  So asked Tertullian way back in the 3rd century.  His implication was that our culture has one way of doing things and Christianity has a whole other way of doing things.  Christians don’t need to interact with or learn from culture at all since we have a whole other Kingdom to guide us.  In this case, culture is not as much a threat or enemy as it is a completely worthless entity to the Christian (not that we could actually live completely unaffected by our culture).  This approach to Harry Potter might be Christians who say, “I just read the Bible and don’t have time for such secular reading.”  Our Amish/Mennonite siblings (for whom I have much respect) have predominantly taken this approach to culture.  We’ll call this group “Separatists.”  (You’ll see that there might be some overlap in these camps.)

3. “God is everywhere!”  This phrase has the potential to be theologically accurate, but this extreme basically provides a rubber-stamp to everything.  It’s all good.  This group may have certain things they don’t think have any redeeming value whatsoever.  But where the Purists reject based on one hint of sin, this group accepts based on one hint of godliness.  This approach would look at some of the themes running through the Harry Potter books and declare it a good Christian series.  We’ll call this group “Accepters.”  (OK, I ran out of good names.)

I don’t find any of these approaches to be particularly useful in actually following Jesus’ call to love God and love our neighbors.  Why?  Because I think the Christian Story is a bit deeper than any one of these approaches (especially my over-simplifications of them).

1. Imago Dei (Image of God).  In Genesis 1:28, we are told that the woman and man were created “in God’s image.”  In function, essence, and relational bent, humans were created as representatives for God to care and cultivate his creation who reflect something of the Creator to the creation.  Even after the Fall, we see humans described as having God’s image.  As we approach culture, I think this means that we should expect to see glimpses of God’s image in every person or culture.  Even including those who know nothing of Jesus or the Gospel, we have been wired to cultivate, care, influence, create, and relate.  In my opinion, the Purist, in rejecting all things that don’t have the label “Christian,” is missing out on a huge way God is revealing himself in this world: in his creatures and in the work that those image-bearing creatures do.  As the Harry Potter series has gone on, Christians have increasingly recognized wonderful Gospel themes in the story like faithfulness, sacrificial love, integrity, good’s triumph over evil, etc.  We find these themes played out in art, philosophy, even other religions.  Far from diminishing the impact of the Gospel, I believe this shows the way the Gospel Story oozes up through our fallen world and speaks to the longings and conditions of every culture.  These stories, ideas, and creations may even “prime the pump” for people and cultures to understand Jesus and the Gospel Story when the time comes.  At the very least, Harry Potter is a good starting point for Christians to engage people in our culture, a kind of opening act for our witness to the Gospel.

2. Missio Dei (Mission of God).  What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?  In full Jesus-mode, I answer this question with a question: “What has heaven to do with earth?”  If Imago Dei challenges the Purist approach to culture, I believe the Incarnation and Pentecost challenge the Separatist approach.  As we find in Isaiah, Revelation, and some of our great hymns (see v. 3), the ultimate hope of our Faith is the reunion of heaven and earth, of Creator with his creation.  And just as the heavenly Word of God engaged earthly people, the Christian call to follow Christ demands that we engage our culture.  The great missionary Paul engages the Athenian culture, pointing out where their philosophers have glimpsed the Gospel and where they have come up short.  We cannot afford to separate from our culture.  It doesn’t mean we have to read every bestseller or watch every movie (especially to the total neglect of the Scriptures or Christian community).  It doesn’t mean we have to like every pop musician.  Being a student of culture, however, is a necessary part of relevant Gospel storytelling.  Watch Harry Potter and The Breakfast Club.  Read the newspaper and popular books by atheists.  Listen to Lady Gaga and a political pundit you disagree with, because listening to understand is part of loving.  And loving our neighbors is the second greatest commandment.

3. Sin.  As we engage our culture, mining it for glimpses of God’s image and listening to its voices, we must not neglect that reality of sin in ourselves and our culture.  While I’m quite confident that the witchcraft of Harry Potter little resembles real witchcraft, the Old Testament and New Testament both warn that dabbling in the occult is spiritually dangerous if we do believe the spiritual realm exists (which the Bible assumes).  But it may be equally dangerous to engage culture thoughtlessly.  As much as God’s Image pervades all areas of culture, so do the twisting, deceptive, life-taking forces of sin and evil.  The “Imago Dei” and “Missio Dei” points above can be easily used to justify indulgence in cultural products that really are stumbling blocks to our faith.  For instance, as much as I would encourage some Christians to consider a calling to minister in bars (because that’s where people are), I would not encourage a recovering alcoholic Christian who still struggles with that temptation to pursue such a ministry.  Or, the video game world might be a really valid place to meet people and witness a different way of doing virtual life, but not when the video game starts to take over the disciple’s life.  There may be some movies that are so saturated in sin that the tiny glimpse of redemptive themes hardly make them worth viewing.  As much as witchcraft may be a genuine concern for some Christians, I think that far more concerning are the subtle ways sin lurks to subvert the Gospel in generally accepted, everyday cultural products.  Focusing so much energy on overt “sins” like Harry Potter’s witchcraft (again, it is more fantasy than witchcraft) distracts us and makes us vulnerable to the stronger cultural forces that subtly subvert the Gospel.  When we do engage, we must pay attention to where the glimpse of God ends, and when it is time to get (back) to the real thing: God revealed to us in Jesus.

The Christian Purist, Separatist, and Accepter attempt to let rules drive their life of faith.  As much as we may say we hate rules, we are drawn to them from childhood because they are simple, black-and-white, and thoughtless: easy.  The Gospel exposes rules as incomplete ways of doing life.  Sure there are some behaviors that are always wrong, but the Grace and Mission lift us to a more excellent way: the messy, complicated, life-changing, and ultimately fulfilling Way of Love.  Jesus lived by engaging the culture, breaking the rules that discouraged love, and offering a wonderful alternative to both the way of exclusionary rules and of thoughtless standardlessness: the Kingdom of God.

Oh, so is Harry Potter more antichrist or Christ-figure?  I would suggest we see him as a classic Christ-figure.  Every Christ-figure comes up short of the real thing, but helps us to see the beauty and love of Jesus from a new perspective.  So go ahead, watch and read, and then praise God for the Christ who is the Beginning and End of all that is truly love, the Author and Perfector of every good and true story.


For a brief intro to some of Richard Niebuhr’s conclusions on the topic: