Thinking Out Loud

June 5, 2012

“I Don’t Like It, But I Need a Theological Reason”

The comments section was fairly quiet yesterday, but off the blog it was a different story…

…anyway, I decided as promised to reprint the further foray into yesterday’s topic that actually appeared in the comments section…

It began with this comment, which I did not approve:

I’ve read more informative commentary on the place mats at Burger King.

I wasn’t trying to restate the story of Tim Challies blog review of Ann Voskamp’s book because I thought the article at her.meneutics spelled out everything so clearly. Did you click through? Out of hundreds of page views early yesterday, only a handful of people actually clicked through to read the story.

I wasn’t originally trying to provide a lot of commentary , I just wanted to share the story; I think Ann’s response was very Christ-like and very consistent with what I saw of her on the interviews at 100 Huntley Street. (Linked in my ‘overview’ of the book which is linked here.)

But since you asked so nicely…

Mark 9:38-41 — Common English Bible (CEB)

Recognize your allies

38 John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.”

39 Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him. No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. 40 Whoever isn’t against us is for us. 41 I assure you that whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will certainly be rewarded.

I think the type of person who is going to have great issues with this book is probably the same type of person who has issues with The Shack. I can be more objective here because while I was — once the smoke cleared and I’d settled my own position —  very supportive of Paul Young’s book; I saw Ann’s as more of a women’s book and I’m sure the sales figures bear that out to the point where I think only a woman can provide a really thorough review of it.

But we tend to shy away from anything that’s not produced from within “our group.” (See Mark 9, above.) My own research has shown that in any particular community, no matter how much media and marketing is given to a particular book title; it will sell so much a better if a local pastor endorses the book from the pulpit; more so if it quotes a particular translation or appears under the imprint of a particular publisher.

The church has long resisted change and innovation, and Ann Voskamp’s book, her blog, her style of public speaking is very unique; very much who she is.

I find that frequently the church is awakened by the sound of a different voice; I also find that even those whose message may have some rough meters and uneven cadences causes us to think more than those with a skillfully crafted prose that is the same as every other speaker and writer. (Though I am not at all saying that Ann Voskamp’s writing is not beautifully structured; but it is unlike everything else currently on offer.)

Tim Challies writes,

She either quotes or is influenced by authors like Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence, Annie Dillard, and Dallas Willard. This brings to the book a deep-rooted mysticism that at times seems even to border on the view that the divine exists within and extends to all parts of nature (a teaching known as panentheism). At heart, mysticism promotes the view that God can be experienced, and perhaps even best experienced, outside of Scripture.

Tim Challies cited as problematic Ann’s having been influenced by ‘mystics’ like Henri Nouwen and Dallas Willard. Again, I’m not a fan of Willard; we did one of his curriculum DVD series on Sunday nights and it just didn’t connect with me. But I have to allow some respect for the pastor who thought this would be good for our people, and the publishing company that vetted his material. I am simply not automatically predisposed to dismiss certain writers out of hand if other people I know draw great value from their perspective.

And is the revelation we have of God absolutely limited to the revelation in scripture? Do we know things (that are truth) about God extra-Biblically? That’s been debated for centuries. I would argue that all things taught must line up with scripture, but beyond that I am cautiously open.

So I have no built-in bias toward Ann, the book, or the writers who have influenced her; and that said, I still defend her right to have a place at the conversation table for Christian women; and I also place a certain degree of confidence in her publisher, Zondervan, who are ironically the publisher of one of Tim Challies’ books.

…A couple of weeks ago, Jack, a guy in our community passed away. Jack attended a “King James Only” church his whole life, but he seemed a little too “open” and too intelligent to buy into the so-called doctrinal reasons for clinging to that translation. So I asked him. He just smiled and looked me straight in the eye and said, “It’s just preferences. That’s all it is; preferences.”

And that’s really all it is in this case.

Referring to a chapter where Ann compares intimacy with God to sexual ecstasy, Challies says,

Sometimes it is best to allow God to define the parameters of our metaphors rather than taking them to a much greater extent. Voskamp would have done well to limit herself here.

If this is true, what do we do with the “not safe but good” Aslan in Narnia? That was a stretch, to say the least.

He goes on,

Why should she have to travel to a Roman Catholic cathedral in a foreign land in order to truly experience the Lord?

If travel is an issue, what are to do with summer camp ministries, where we remove children from familiar influences in order for them to see themselves and see God in a different environment? What are we to do with the testimonies of those who have truly “found” God in the middle of a brothel, or a casino, or even in the midst of a truly false cult? The Psalmist said, “If I make my bed in hell, you are there.” Is the problem that it was a Catholic cathedral? In fact, are not our greatest experiences of worship and understanding often while we’re away from our routines and comfortable surroundings?

He concluded,

I fear that some will see that Voskamp subtly promotes a higher order of holiness, a higher order of relationship with God, and be dissatisfied that they do not have this for themselves.

Is that not true on some level of each and every Christian book we read? Every church service we attend? Every sermon podcast we listen to? Yes, there is always that “Monday morning letdown;” that return to reality that happens after the spiritual high from Sunday’s service. But 167 hours later, we go back; we go on retreat weekends; we buy another Christian book, because we want to be inspired.

One Thousand Gifts is probably not my kind of book. But as my friend Jack would say, “That’s just preferences;” and if you’re going to let your personal preferences get in the way, then don’t consider yourself in any way an objective book reviewer of Henri Nouwen or Brennan Manning or The Shack. or One Thousand Gifts.

The principle of noblesse oblige also applies to people who have been given a huge platform, either in their books, their pastorate or their blog. You must conduct yourself and know that your words will be judged by a higher standard. The very first response, the default response to those outside “our group” must be a gracious one; especially when we propose to judge the entire tenor of someone else’s ministry.

Placing too much in one particular blogger’s approval or disapproval of something, “in its own subtle way I believe that it can and will prove dangerous, at least to some.”

Or as the scriptures say, “Not many of you should presume to write book reviews.” It’s there. Just check your concordance.

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