Thinking Out Loud

March 18, 2013

Rob Bell Returns to Mars Hill Grand Rapids

Filed under: books — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:23 am

To kick off his book tour for What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Rob Bell returned to Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids last Sunday, and this week the sermon was posted online so the rest of us could experience it. 

Rob Bell 2013To his credit, although he was given complete freedom to speak about anything, he asked the church what their current sermon series was, and was told they were doing a “Seven Deadly Sins” series and if he wanted to jump in, he would draw the sermon on sloth. Yes, sloth. Nothing Bell has ever been accused of. He brings his own trademark stamp to this topic, albeit frequently returning to additional personal updates and references to his own enigmatic character.

He began with a story about failing his first attempt at a California driver’s license; the problem being his penchant for “questioning the questions.” Why does this not surprise me? Well, at least he’s consistent.

In the first part of the sermon, he discussed his recent journey; which I thought was probably considerate of people who have joined the church since his departure. If I can somewhat paraphrase his remarks, he stated that people want to talk about their brokenness, their personal struggles; but that as he was serious about treating these concerns the way Jesus would, he discovered that when we let these circumstances shape us, they become relevant to the larger question of what it means to be human. What next happens is that this type of discussion enlarges the circle of people who want to engage the topic, and you suddenly find yourself speaking to a much larger audience.

He also talked about the television project that he has under development and the live audience got to see a 90-second trailer for which we are at least treated to the audio soundtrack.

…I recognize that Bell is controversial and I don’t want to review the entire sermon — nor do I think people should do sermon reviews — so if you wish to listen, here is the link.  Just clicking the Mars Hill sermon page and hearing a Rob Bell sermon is like trying on an old pair of shoes! It runs about 43 minutes.

Also, I’m about a quarter of the way through the new book. I’m also reading another book concurrently, so this may take awhile, but I’ll have more comments next week.

February 18, 2013

Rob Bell Returns With A Spring Book Release

Rob Bell - What We Talk About When We Talk About GodHe’s back. But among readers here — who I feel are representative of the larger Christian community — what will be the interest in What We Talk about When We Talk about God?  The book releases March 12th from HarperCollins.

At his blog, Denny Burk doesn’t mince words:

I’m personally of the opinion that Rob Bell is no longer relevant to the larger evangelical theological conversation. Yes, his book will probably sell a lot of copies. No, evangelicals by and large won’t mistake him for one of their own like they used to.

The Christian Post reports that the book is one “in which the Christian author and minister does for God ‘what he did for heaven and hell in Love Wins,’ according to the publisher.”  Yes, I know; I just heard a couple of you shudder. Love Wins was not without its detractors. The Post article adds,

..[T]he controversy surrounding Bell’s book resulted in 3,000 members leaving Mars Hill Bible Church. The tension eventually forced Bell and his wife to split from the congregation. The couple moved to California last year, where the former church leader has since been holding seminars, working on producing a “faith-inflected talk show” and searching “for a more forgiving faith…”

Frank Viola hails Bell as a “marketing genius” and you already figured out that the new book will include a book tour.

Here’s the publisher’s (HarperOne) marketing blurb:

How God is described today strikes many as mean, primitive, backward, illogical, tribal, and at odds with the frontiers of science. At the same time, many intuitively feel a sense of reverence and awe in the world. Can we find a new way to talk about God?

Pastor and New York Times bestselling author Rob Bell does here for God what he did for heaven and hell in Love Wins he shows how traditional ideas have grown stale and dysfunctional and reveals a new path for how to return vitality and vibrancy to how we understand God. Bell reveals how we got stuck, why culture resists certain ways of talking about God, and how we can reconnect with the God who is with us, for us, and ahead of us, pulling us forward into a better future–and ready to help us live life to the fullest.

Rob’s Bell’s writing process comes through in this made-at-home video trailer, which involves 3X5 cards inscribed with words like boombox, snail, volume, further, closer. Is it just me or do they sound like potential NOOMA titles?

November 3, 2011

Does Corporate Ownership of Christian Publisher Matter?

Monday’s announcement that Christian publishing giant Thomas Nelson was going to be acquired by mainstream publishing giant HarperCollins caught some people off guard.  It shouldn’t.  Thomas Nelson (TNI) had actually been owned by an investment company for several years.  But given parent company News Corp’s penchant for headline-making this year, it was a hard story to ignore, especially with TNI sitting atop the New York Times Bestseller List with Heaven is for Real by Todd and Colton Burpo for most of the summer.

The spin that got put on this story was that News Corp owner Rupert Murdoch would now “own the Bible;” given that HarperCollins already owns Zondervan (ZDV).  And it’s no lie; ZDV and TNI command half of the Bible sales market, with the former being the primary (but not sole) publisher of the NIV, and also having NASB, GNT and KJV editions; and TNI being the almost-exclusive publisher of the NKJV and NCV (New Century Version) and also having KJV editions.

But nobody owns the Bible.  It’s God’s book, and what centuries of attempted destruction have failed to do is not going to be accomplished by changes in corporate ownership of a few publishers; though the advocates of some versions — I’m guessing ESV especially — will have a field day with the Murdoch angle to the story.

Do people really notice who owns what?  Many don’t even bother to read the publisher imprint on the spine or title page of their favorite books; let alone know that Publisher “A” is owned by a particular denomination and Publisher “B” is owned by a giant media conglomerate.  They listen to Switchfoot, Chris Tomlin or Steven Curtis Chapman completely unaware that parent company EMI also releases the many artists that Christian music exists as an alternative for. 

Furthermore, if it was explained to them, they would probably agree that Faithwords’ book titles, as part of the giant Hachette Book Group, can probably get into more places  around the world than might be possible with homegrown publishers like Tyndale, Baker Book Group, or Harvest House.  And the financial might of a company like HarperCollins makes it possible for Zondervan to release a vast array of updated NIV-2011 Bibles almost overnight.

But where it gets insidious is when someone comes along with an axe to grind; with something they are against; and seeks to play the ownership trump card — not a reference to Donald Trump who hasn’t entered Christian publishing yet — suggesting that to buy a NKJV or NIV is to support the company that also publishes Tarot cards.    And religious-interest imprint HarperOne does in fact publish Tarot Games: 45 Playful Ways to Explore Tarot Cards Together; A New Vision for the Circle of Community

But then they will purchase some ultra-conservative book by an ultra-conservative publishing company, but purchase it through online sellers like Am*zon, who also distribute erotic literature and photography titles.  Or perhaps through a Christian bookstore that is so heavily second and third mortgaged that it’s truly owned by the bank; a bank which may have other investments of which they would not approve.  All I’m saying here is that I don’t know if you ever win this battle in a multi-tiered, inter-connected economy. 

So yes, TNI is about to be acquired by HarperCollins which also owns ZDV and publishes Tarot Games.  If you want to only support those publishers that are 100% owned by Christian individuals or ministry organizations, that still leaves you a lot of possibilities.  But sadly, it also eliminates many others, the fruit of authors who desire to take their message to the widest possible audience using whatever plane, train, truck or book distribution network to do so. 

And most are good authors, worthy of your support, worthy of your trust, worthy of your taking the time to listen to their stories, their wisdom or their Biblical exposition. 

October 16, 2011

Rob Bell Pens Response to the Responses

In keeping with our policy of all Rob Bell news all the time, here’s the latest:  HarperCollins will release a paperback response to the critics in February 2012 simply titled The Love Wins Companion.

Bit of a cover similarity, don't ya think?

Here’s the 411 from the publisher:

For anyone who wants to delve deeper into Rob Bell’s bestselling Love Wins, the expansive and accessible Love Wins Companion offers scholarly support and critiques, resources for individuals, groups, and classes, and brand new material by Rob Bell himself. As Love Wins continues to become a touchstone for thousands of readers worldwide, controversy surrounds the book’s arguments. Author Brian D. McClaren wrote that with Love Wins “thousands of readers will find freedom and hope and a new way of understanding the biblical story,” yet USA Today observed that “Bell has stuck a pitchfork in how Christians talk about damnation.” Here, in The Love Wins Companion, Rob Bell offers commentary on the positive and negative attention his groundbreaking book is receiving, delivering a crucial supplement to one of the most important books since the Bible.

For those looking to go deeper with Rob Bell’s bestselling pioneering book Love Wins, this companion offers:

  • Insights and commentary by theologians, Bible scholars, scientists, and pastors
  • Deep analysis of all relevant Bible passages on heaven, hell, and salvation
  • Detailed chapter summaries, discussion questions, and Bible studies for individuals, groups, and classes
  • Excerpts from works throughout Christian history illustrating the variety of teachers also debating the issues Bell wrestles with
  • New material by Bell on his mission for the book and how people can take the next step

July 13, 2011

Wednesday Link List

Wednesday List Links

Welcome back to another list…

  • Shaun Groves is getting ready to release a new album, Third World Symphony, and Journey of Worship caught up with him for an interview.  And speaking of CCM artists…
  • Here’s what Joy Williams has been up to lately, as half of the duo The Civil Wars  [video] which I was reminded of while reading this…
  • Jason Adkins digs deep into the grammar of CCM: “Prepositional Phrases Are the Artistic Expression Du Jour.  Whether it’s Chris Tomlin (And If Our God Is For Us…), Blindside (With Shivering Hearts We Wait), or the continuance-to-a-specified-time tendencies of Casting Crowns (Until the Whole World Hears) and Red (Until We Have Faces), the prepositional phrase is challenging the terse one-word album title as the dominate naming convention in Christian music.” Read The State of the Art Address.
  • Missy gets into the subject of designer babies and gender selection at It’s Almost Naptime, a popular parenting blog for women.
  • Popular author and theologian N. T. Wright is releasing the New Testament edition of his own Bible translation, The Kingdom New Testament.  More advance info at Zondervan.
  • Canada’s largest multi-site church, The Meeting House is doing something very different for the summer.  For 12 weeks, they’ve invited leaders from other denominations to share the pulpit with TMH teaching pastor Bruxy Cavey.  (Plus a visit from Philip Yancey!) So far we’ve enjoyed all of them, available on both video and audio.
  • Mickey Maudlin, Senior Vice President and Executive Editor at HarperOne (HarperCollins’ religious imprint) reflects on the reaction to their publication of Rob Bell‘s Love Wins.  Sample: “As a young evangelical, I was socialized to see the biggest threat to the church as theological liberalism. But now I think the biggest threat is Christian tribalism…”
  • Last week I linked to some pictures of the event, this week a visit to Julie Clawson’s impressions of the Wild Goose Festival.
  • Mark Dever looks at what’s wrong with pastoral search committees (#6 of 9: “A beauty pageant mentality”) and then, in part two of the same article suggests that this is actually the responsibility of the church elders.  
  • B. J. Stockman looks at the gospel at Resurgence blog.  This is a longer piece but in section three, check out the gospel as reflected in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Leviticus.
  • Lifeshapes author Mike Breen sees celebrity, consumerism, and competition as the key elements that are writing the obituary of the Amercian Church.
  • Also for our American readers, here’s a breakdown of the faith demographics on a state by state basis.  Just hover your mouse over the state for info.
  • Sovereign Grace Ministries leader C. J. Mahaney is stepping away from ministry for an unspecified time.
  • Here’s the video where the deer got loose in Colonial Hills Baptist Church and was captured by security cameras.  Easy to miss in this is the observation of the vast number of security cameras this church actually needs.
  • It’s “Sex Week” at Stuff Fundies Like.  Can’t wait to see how sex and fundamentalism mix.
  • Last month I introduced you to Searching for Grace, a new cartoon by Mike Mooney.  Here’s a very recent panel, giving you the kind of thing you can expect at his website.

March 16, 2011

Wednesday Link List

Survived the Ides of March did you?  In honor of St. Patrick’s Day tomorrow, we’re in green today!

  • Hands down, today’s top entry has to be Mark Galli’s very balanced look at Rob Bell’s Love Wins at Christianity Today.
  • Here’s Bell being interviewed by Martin Bashir on msnbc.com who, refreshingly, begins by asking Bell for his take on the disaster in Japan.
  • If you read the book Life Without Limits you know the story of Nick Vujicic, a young man born without limbs. What you may not know is that Nick been cast in a Depression-era film The Butterfly Circus, about a limb-less performer in a carnival sideshow.  You can buy a copy on DVD for only $12.99.
  • Here’s a preview of an organization I’m going to be a full profile on sometime soon.  Megavoice is an organization, a Bible translation project, and a playback device that has no moving parts and needs no batteries.
  • The Church Report has a summary of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s forum at Saddleback with Rick Warren in which the former PM discussed the role of faith in a 90-minute Q & A session.
  • Blog discovery of the week:  GraceWorks has archives going back to January of 2000 — that’s eleven years ago.  As Homer Simpson might say, “Was the internet even available for computers back then?”
  • The plot thickens:  In episode three of John Shore’s Smith Family Chronicles, Bob and Betty discuss daughter Jane’s gayness.   But does Bob let something slip out accidentally?  A new episode every Friday. (Also, FYI, some backstory on the series in this article.)
  • When I blogged last week about looking for “something completely different” (obvious Monty Python reference), I got a reply from Anita who blogs at Dreaming Beneath The Spires from C. S. Lewis country, Oxford, England.
  • Good evangelists always have some good stories.  Our latest catch from Stuff Fundies Like is this video, a reworking of the old hymn “I Love to Tell the Story.” A total and complete reworking.
  • Here’s a bonus video link to something at Lance Morgan’s blog (HT Pete Wilson) titled “A Message To The Sound Guy.” This might strike a little close to home for some church volunteers
  • No link for this one, but Thomas Nelson’s Book Sneeze program, by which many of your favorite bloggers get their books to review, is sounding out its membership on the idea of sending review copies out as e-books in order to save money.  Good idea or bad idea?
  • Speaking of books, don’t miss the two book mini-reviews here from the past weekend, both centering in on books with the word “lies” in the title!  (Would I lie?)
  • If you can’t stop wacko protests at military funerals, get The Patriot Guard to cover them over and drown them out.
  • Last month Trey Morgan posted Francis Chan’s Ten Signs You May Be A Lukewarm Christian from Crazy Love, a book I’m finally getting around to reading.
  • That’s all I’ve got time for this week, but suggestions are always welcomed.

March 9, 2011

Wednesday Link List

I think we’ll start with a shout out to all the people who gave up social networking and blogs for lent. In which case, why are you reading this?

  • We kick off with a few quotations from an interview U2′s Bono did with a Johannesburg radio station last month, along with a link to an audio file of the entire program.
  • The Rob Bell release date for Love Wins has been moved up by two weeks to March 15th, less than a week away!  Mars Hill Bible Church in Granville, Michigan has made no official comment, but on Sunday, parishioners were told that church staff are supportive and excited about the book’s release.
  • However, Jon Rising suggests that there’s a whole other controversial book releasing at HarperOne — the same day — and traces links to advance reviews of Miroslav Volf’s simply titled Allah: A Christian Response.   The publisher blurb helps define the book’s hot spots.
  • A young Christian woman tells her Christian father that she is gay. We’ve all heard stories like this, but what does that actually look like?  How does that play out exactly? John Shore takes what is, to many of us a very abstract concept, and spells out what that really looks like in many families in his fictional Smith Family Chronicles; episode one and episode two already complete with more to follow.
  • A couple of strong stories at Christian Week (three actually, and we’ll give each one its own bullet!). First a piece on how urban poverty is not a downtown thing anymore but is hitting the suburbs featuring the director of the Yonge Street Mission.  (In fact, urban downtown areas are reconsolidating into a very upscale vibe.)
  • Next, a piece about the relationship between the church and political debates sparked by Billy Graham’s statement that he regrets the times he waded in on political issues.
  • Last in our CW hat trick — and I don’t expect my U.S. readers to get the full impact of this, but here this is huge — Crossroads, Canada’s largest Christian television ministry gave InterVarsity Christian Fellowship five of its Circle Square Ranch summer camps.  No strings attached.  An outright gift from one ministry to another.  They become part of the ministry of IVCF as of the first of April.
  • I find it interesting that many of today’s younger preachers are the subject of condemnation by older ones because the younger ones don’t do expository (verse by verse) preaching.  But Andy Stanley really rose to the occasion in this series on Acts titled Big Church.
  • Okay, it’s not that Facebook is solely responsible for one in five divorces as originally reported in 2009; but it is definitely accelerating the process.
  • Spent about 40 minutes on Sunday night enjoying a mini-concert by an artist who is quite established here in Canada who needs to be shared with the rest of the world.  Check out Greg Sczebel’s website.
  • Got baggage?  Know someone who’s got baggage?  Check out this short video at GodTube.  Also at GodTube here’s a music clip from Christy Nockels from the new album Passion: Waiting Here For You.
  • Looking for some good news online?  Here’s a site with a difference: My Miracle invites readers to post stories of God’s intervention in their lives.  Maybe your story.
  • Got a question for The Pope?  He hits the Italian TV airwaves on Good Friday for a little bit of Q & A in a pre-recorded program.
  • Several months ago, this blog ran a piece on modesty for girls.  Now here’s a modesty test for your preteen or early teen daughter from Dannah Gresh’s Secret Keeper Girl website.
  • If you’re reading this Wednesday morning or afternoon you can still catch our contest from Monday to win a copy of One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.
  • Here’s another one from Darrell at Stuff Fundies Like featuring all your favorite types of church songleaders.
  • And speaking of same; here’s CT’s list of the Top 27 All Time Favorite… Hymns?  That’s right, all scientifically calculated using books which contain them that nobody actually uses anymore.  This could be the very last such list.  (Click the image to see the chart clearer as a .pdf)
  • Our cartoon this week recognizes that today is the first day of Lent, which every good Evangelical knows is the _____  ____s before ________.  (Betcha we caught a few off-guard.) Bad Sheep is the product of Jay Cookingham who blogs at Soulfari, You can also click the image below to check out Lambo and Chop’s merchandise.

March 1, 2011

Rob Bell — Straying From Traditional Evangelicalism: How Far is Too Far?

On January 21st, I mentioned that through a series of circumstances I had obtained a very advance copy of Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven Hell and the Fate of Every Person Who Has Ever Lived (March 29, 2011, HarperCollins, Hardcover.)  In that brief article, I suggested that by the end of March, social media are going to have a field day with this title because of its controversial subject.

I was wrong.

According to this article posted at Christianity Today over the weekend, the fur has already started flying even before key players are getting their hands on advance print copies of the book (something I’ve been told to expect in my mail within the next two weeks.) In fairness, I need to say that I doubt any of this has come as a great surprise to Rob Bell himself. I don’t see him sitting at his computer in Grand Rapids saying, “Oh, look at this! These guys apparently don’t see it this way.”

On the other hand, many of those entering into the discussion are doing so solely on the basis of the brief publisher blurb online.   Well, actually that’s been online for awhile. The weekend brought the promotional video, which you can view at Justin Taylor’s February 26th post, along with an update that the topic of  Bell’s book — and a discussion of Bell himself — has been added to the agenda of The Gospel Coalition’s April national conference, a constituency whose orthodoxy is rarely questioned, but a constituency that is probably among the easiest to offend. (They probably considered burning him in effigy, but couldn’t get the local fire department to grant a permit.) Apparently Bell has been official designated a “problem” to be dealt with.

First of all, for the two or three of you who don’t have Flash Drive and can’t watch the video clip; and the two or three hundred of you who didn’t bother to  click, here is the text of the video that’s causing the stir, plus a few extra paragraphs:

Several years ago we had an art show at our church. I had been giving a series of teachings on peacemaking and we invited artists to display their paintings and poems and sculptures that reflected their understanding of what it means to be a peacemaker. One woman included in her work a quote from Gandhi, which a number of people found quite compelling.

But not everyone.

Someone attached a piece of paper to it. On the piece

of paper they had written: ‘Reality check: He’s in hell.’

Really?

Gandhi’s in hell?

He is?

We have confirmation of this?

Somebody knows this?

Without a doubt?

And they decided it was their responsibility to let the rest of us know?

Of all the billions of people who have ever lived, will only a select number ‘make it to a better place’ and every single other person will suffer in torment and punishment forever? Is this acceptable to God? Has God created millions of people over tens of thousands of years who are going to spend eternity in anguish? Can God do this, or even allow this, and still claim to be a loving God?

Does God punish people for thousands of years with infinite, eternal torment for things they did in their few, finite years of life?

This doesn’t just raise disturbing questions about God, it raises questions about the beliefs themselves-

Why them?

Why you?

Why me?

Why not him or her or them?

If there are only a select few who go to heaven, which is more terrifying: the billions who burn forever or the few who escape? How does a person end up being one of the few?

Chance?

Luck?

Random selection?

Being born in the right place, family, or country?

Having a youth pastor who ‘related better to the kids?’

God choosing you instead of others?

What kind of faith is that?

Or more importantly:

What kind of God is that?

And why is it that whenever someone claims that one group is in, saved, accepted by God, forgiven, enlightened, redeemed-and everybody else isn’t-why is it that the people who make this claim are almost always part of the group that’s ‘in?’

Have you ever heard somebody make claims about a select few being the chosen and then claim that they’re not one of them?

I recently heard a woman tell about the funeral of her daughter’s friend, a high school student who was killed in a car accident. Her daughter was asked by a Christian if the young man who had died was a Christian. She said that he told people he was an atheist. This person then said to her: “So there’s no hope then.”

No hope?

Is that the Christian message?

“No hope?”

Is that what Jesus offers the world?

Is this the sacred calling of a Christian: to announce that there’s no hope?

~ Rob Bell, from an unedited copy of chapter one “What About the Flat Tire?” from Love Wins

Since I intend to return to this a few more times in the next few weeks, I’ll just point out a few of the other comments from the weekend:

Aaron Armstrong (after whom the 1.5V batteries are named)  at Blogging Theologically writes:

In his previous books and tours, Bell has often been… squishy regarding his take on the wrath of God (even going so far as to reinterpret God’s wrath as a feeling of grief mixed with a desire to reconnect and restore). Indeed, he’s been so ambiguous that it’s caused a great many pastors and theologians to ask the question: Is he a universalist?

With this book it seems we might have an answer, in much the same way Brian McLaren dropped his pretense of trying to remain orthodox in A New Kind of Christianity.

However, I don’t know if it’s safe to say that for certain because, well, the book hasn’t been released yet. Because the material is in Bell’s typically ambiguous style so it can be taken one of two ways:

  1. He is playing “Devil’s Advocate” (oh, how I loathe that term) and presenting legitimate questions
  2. The trajectory he’s been on for years has reached it’s destination and he’s outright abandoned the gospel

Meanwhile Jeremy Bouma writing at Novus Lumen and living himself in Grand Rapids hasn’t received his advance copy yet, but decided to revisit some of Bell’s earlier works. He writes:

While some have speculated that it is universalism through and through—I have on good authority that this is the case—a recent re-read of Bell’s first book, Velvet Elvis, suggests this has been his trajectory for at least 7 years.

He includes a couple of quotations from that book that are worth re-examination through the filter of recent developments.  His article also links to the blog Signature Entertainment, which has a more tempered view of things:

I’m not sure if Rob is going to take it as far as “hell is non-existent”, but the one thing that Bell seems to do well is walk the line of controversy, yet remain a consistent voice that challenges the Evangelical community. The best example of this is in Velvet Elvis where Rob Bell uses the example of questioning the Virgin birth to make a case for deconstructing one’s faith, even though he doesn’t actually make the claim that Jesus was not born of a Virgin.

I would agree that Bell loves to tease his audience. The following may or may not be part of the final manuscript, but certainly causes the reader to wonder which afterlife is up:

The apostle Paul wrote in one of his letters to the Corinthians that ‘the Day’ the prophets spoke of, the one that inaugurates life in the age to come, will ‘bring everything to light’ and ‘reveal it with fire,’ the kind of fire that will ‘test the quality of each person’s work.’ Some in this process will find that they spent their energies and efforts on things that won’t be in heaven-on-earth. ‘If it is burned up,’ Paul wrote, ‘the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved, even though only as one escaping through the flames.’

Flames in heaven.

And while we’re teasing you, here’s a direct copy of two sentences in the version I have:

Do I believe in a literal hell?

Of course.

…But I need to tell you that I’ve cut and pasted that totally out of context. (I mean, you don’t want a bunch of spoilers, do you?)  And in case you’re wondering, yes, Chapter Three, “Hell,” does address the story of we know as “The Rich Man and Lazarus.”  It’s a different response than you’ve heard in other sermons to be sure, but at the end of the day, Bell does indeed affirm “… the very real consequences we experience when we reject all the good and true and beautiful life that God has for us.”

Chapter Three is in many ways the cornerstone of the entire book, and I’m reluctant to provide more of it here; and frankly, once the book is in the stores, I hope others won’t excerpt bits of it either. I say that simply because Bell’s argument has a rhythm and cadence of its own, and to just edit bits of it for a review is akin to editing a few bars out of a symphony. I’m not saying that I agree with all its conclusions, or even that its conclusions are overt and plain, but there is a passion to this particular argument that you need to experience in its full context.

You’ll probably not agree with everything, but you won’t be the same after you’ve finished reading.

Note to the 99.99% of people who won’t get an advance review copy of the book:  All of this discussion is valid and needful. But make sure it stays focused on the issues. Some of those who you will read online have come into this discussion with their minds already made up about Bell and have been looking for an opportunity to run him, figuratively speaking, out of town. The issue of Christian Universalism is a very serious and crucial issue and we need to stay on that issue, and not allow the personality or preaching style of an individual pastor to sidetrack us from gaining deeper understanding of what the Bible might be saying.

Other pre-reading comments: Josh Reich at Missional Thoughts, the blog Episcopal Café, the blog Arminian Today which sees Bell as deliberately provocative and publicity-seeking, and Maggie Dawn who relegates Bell to someone “engaging people with Christianity at entry level.”

Related post: John Shore uses an XtraNormal text-to-video to bring the conflicting views into sharp focus.

This blog post contains elements of an early version of the book which may not be part of the final copy.

January 24, 2011

My Jesus Year: An Evangelical Embed With An Alternative Agenda

Ever since Jim Henderson took Casper the Friendly Atheist to church, I’ve had a fascination with books where  a “fish out of water” give us a fresh take on what the Christian world looks like to an outsider. This weekend, I completed yet another such tome.

In Jim and Casper Go To Church, the “fish” was a foreigner to all things religious.  In My Jesus Year: A Rabbi’s Son Wanders the Bible Belt in Search of His Own Faith, the writer, Benyamin Cohen is all to familiar with what is, potentially at least, going on inside a house of worship.

As I type this, I am aware that I’ve lost track of the number of this type of book I’ve read recently, though certainly the Jim Henderson & Matt Casper title was the one that got this genre going for me.  Then there was Kevin Roose’s semester at Liberty University, chronicled in Unlikely Disciple.  And of course, Daniel Radosh’s investigation of Christianity in Rapture Ready.

Radosh like Cohen is Jewish, but there the similarity ends. Radosh is doing investigative journalism, albeit some of it with tongue firmly in cheek. Benyamin Cohen is on a personal quest; on a personal mission. He is seeking to connect with his own faith by immersing himself in the Christian culture he has always lusted after from afar.

But unlike the other writers embedded for the ride, Cohen continues to attend synagogue as well. It makes for some very tiring weekends. To make matters worse, this Rabbi’s son is married to the daughter of a Methodist minister who was on a road to conversion to Judaism before they met. She is able to provide him with briefing and de-briefing information, but is not along for the ride at all. Oh, and just to make it all that much more colorful, the Rabbi who has given his ‘blessing’ to the one-year project insists that Cohen wear his press credentials and his yarmulke wherever he goes.

Bottom line; this is a book that is really more about Judaism than it is about Christianity. It’s about faith, the quest for faith, finding faith; and purports to show that there are more similarities than differences.

On that point, I am not so sure. Cohen was reared in Orthodox Judaism, that branch of the faith requiring the highest level of devotion to its various laws and interpretation of the laws.

Still, there were a couple of serendipitous parallels between Cohen’s faith journey and my own that were tucked away in sentences almost hidden in the narrative. One was a reference to Benyamin and Elizabeth’s simultaneous membership in two different synagogues. As I mention that, I do so knowing that my wife and I are currently listed in the directory of two different church families. The other was a reference to their decision to ditch the main services taking place over the Jewish high holidays in order to worship with about twenty other people at an “alternative” service in a smaller classroom. That is so something my wife and I would choose to do.

Like Casper and Radosh and Roose, Cohen does not convert at the end, just in case you’re wondering. (Hardly a spoiler!) Though in a way, he does; describing his journey as a later-in-life finding of his own faith.

Cohen is embedded in more than just evangelical culture — this review’s title flawed with an irresistible alliteration — and his journey also takes him into a Catholic confessional booth, and inside the home of a woman being proselytized by Mormon Missionaries. But the book is really a primer for Christians on Orthodox Jewish faith and practice, and simply uses the alleged similarities between the two faith systems as a means to explain his own.

My Jesus Year was published in hardcover by HarperOne in 2008 and in paperback in 2009. It is well-written, engaging, evocative and a must-read for Christians who want to get to know their Jewish neighbors.

November 27, 2009

Zondervan Fighting Fires on Several Fronts

If there’s a copy of the NIV in your house, or even a copy of Purpose Driven Life, you know  Zondervan, the Grand Rapids company founded in 1931 by Pat and Bernie Zondervan, now owned by HarperCollins.

But even if you don’t, you would have a hard time escaping mention of the company online during the last 90 days, as it’s been a wild ride for company executives, and especially company president Maurine (Moe) Girkins, pictured at right, who seems to be making a public statement on one front or another every week.    Imagine dealing with all this:

  • The fall announcement that the TNIV translation would be discontinued in favor of a revised NIV.    This re-sparked old debates over the TNIV’s use of gender-neutral language, with some discussion shifting from the anthropos=mankind argument, to the plural vs. singular argument and the translation vs. commentary challenge of Bible translation.   In the process, very few people considered that the much better-loved NIV — as it currently exists –was also being scrubbed in the process.
  • The hiring of Flickering Pixels author Shane Hipps by Mars Hill Bible Church in Zondervan’s hometown, brought Hipps under fire from the discernment ministries who already had their guns aimed at Rob Bell.   It also showcases Zondervan’s willingness to promote next generation authors and give a platform to younger voices — bloggers Jon Acuff and Anne Jackson come to mind — and Emergent church, social justice and missional voices like Brian McLaren, Shane Claiborne or Dan Kimball.   But the downside of this is going to be inexperience at minimum, or more severe controversy as in the next item; and even the hint of heresy from some extreme sides could diminish the value of the Zondervan brand in the eyes of conservative Christians.    The company is caught in the race against other publishers to sign “the next big thing in Christian writing” on the dotted line.   With that comes risk.   While there are more and more authors in the marketplace, Donald Millers don’t grow on trees.
  • The decision to pull Deadly Viper Character Assasins by Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite was probably not easily made.    Taking a title of out distribution is costly and suggests the company wasn’t carefully considering the full ramifications of the book’s content before the presses started rolling.  Most people agree.   Others would say the company got caught in the tide of political correctness and that the book’s Kung-Fu imagery was a valid literary device to express the authors intent.
  • The sale of Youth Specialties to Youthworks was the buzz of the recent National Youth Workers Convention, and it follows the release of Youth Specialties head Mark Oestreicher.   Zondervan will continue to hold the print rights to current and future books and resources.
  • The downward spiral in the marriage of Jon and Kate Gosselin.   Zondervan is the publisher of Multiple Blessings: Surviving and Thriving with Twins and Sextuplets. The story of a young couple who trusted in the ever present hand of a faithful God to provide the strength and courage they needed to face seemingly impossible challenges one day at a time” no doubt pales in the light of their recent separation and Jon’s excesses.    Such is the world of celebrity.   Just ask Thomas Nelson, whose biography of Lynn Spears was put on hold a few years back when Britney’s younger sister became pregnant at a young age.
  • The lawsuit filed last week against Zondervan by Thomas Nelson, alleging copyright infringement in its I-Can-Read series book, The Princess Twins which they say is ripping off the Gigi: God’s Little Princess book and series by Sheila Walsh.  The similarity in the visual appearance of the characters is complicated by — but also somewhat explained by — the fact that both books used the same illustrator.  It also raises the issue of lawsuits among Christians.
  • The September decision to jettison the company’s Pradis Bible software and instead work with other software developers such as Logos, with the result that pastors and seminarians don’t have to have a separate Bible program to utilize Zondervan content.
  • The shunning of the Christian bookstore market in favor of developing an entire series of specialty Bibles for retail giant Wal-Mart may have been the last straw for those stores.   The backlash could continue for several years as customers bring those copies to the Christian stores looking to buy “another one like this one” which store staff will have never seen before.   To further complicate things, the Wal-Mart series piggybacks on several existing Zondervan NIV brands.
  • Uncertainties as to how many copies of the new Glo Bible software will be returned after Christmas.   With four computers in the house — two of them recent — there’s a little concern in our home as to whether or not we can install the program which requires a dual core processor and 18GB of free hard disc space.  My youngest son, who is into gaming, offered me space on his, but it’s hard to find time when he’s not using it.
  • While it’s not a Zondervan title, the company’s sales reps are promoting parent HarperCollins’ release Going Rogue by Sarah Palin in the Christian bookstore market, because of Palin’s unabashed faith commitment.   But Palin is a wild card, and the company can’t afford any backlash from the independent Christian bookstores that still remain.
  • Stuff Christians Like blogger Jon Acuff’s book of the same name is due out from the company in the new year.   The blog is somewhat tame at times — he refused to print two comments by this writer, and I’m not known for being edgy — but takes risks in others.    One of the edgier sections is called “Booty – God – Booty” which frankly discusses the North American penchant for compartmentalizing our lives into the sacred and the profane.    But readers may have to read the section twice to get the illustration, and speaking of illustrations, at least one blogger is upset over this one.

And that’s just a few major items.   I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the Zondervan conference room.  It’s hard to imagine one Christian publisher dealing with so many varied issues at the same time.

I can’t wait to see what surprises the company has in mind for 2010.

Now,  more in the spirit of blogging:  How significant is the name on the spine of a book to you?  Do you note who the publishers are?   Do publisher imprints matter?   Do you have a favorite publisher?

Pictured below, some graphics from the now off-market Deadly Viper Character Assassins:



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