Thinking Out Loud

October 28, 2013

Book Non-Review: Selling Water by the River

I’m really grateful that the exposure of this blog — while nothing compared to some of the über-bloggers — has allowed me to be so bold as to ask publishers for review copies and get a favorable response. It’s sure an improvement from the pre-blog days when I would simply buy the books and then review them on the newsletter from which Thinking Out Loud emerged.

Selling-Water-by-the-RiverJericho Books is a division of Hachette Book Group, a large publishing concern which has been making increasing inroads into the Christian publishing market, including signing some pretty big names to their Faithwords imprint.  Hachette, or HBC, is a big deal. They probably get a lot of requests for review copies, so they simply ignored me — several times over — when I asked to preview Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber.

So I was several chapters into a copy of last year’s Selling Water By The River by Shane Hipps — a copy which fell off a truck, so to speak — that I realized this was also a Jericho title that I couldn’t really give a full review to under the circumstances.  So I’ll be brief, and let some others do the heavy lifting.

Shane Hipps first appeared on my radar with a book called Flickering Pixels that he wrote for Zondervan. Then, he was named associate pastor at Rob Bell’s Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI, but didn’t let his name stand for the lead pastor job after Bell headed west.

I’ve never been totally sure where Hipps fits in on a liberal-conservative theological continuum that proves challenging when mentioning him or people such as Bell and Peter Rollins or even Brian McLaren. My tendency is to want to put people into a box, and Hipps has confounded me a few times. Reading Selling Water By The River, I see some amazing insights into the message of the gospel, not to mention some absolutely great apologetics in the form of analogies and stories that help define the Christian message.

But then I’m never 100% sure what the subtext is; what he means by “Some Christians believe that…” Does that include Hipps himself? The book is bewildering in many ways. One reviewer said,

While I enjoyed this book it isn’t cohesive. It feels like (and I’m pretty sure it is) a collection of sermons or lessons that have been edited and assembled with a loose theme in a semi-logical order. There are a lot of individual moments of wisdom here, but no big kicker. As a result the book leaves a pleasant vague impression, but no lasting impact on me.

Still another reviewer correctly observed:

Hipps has a gift for disentangling the beautiful way of following Jesus from the centuries of cultural and institutional baggage that so often obscure that way.  Hipps contrasts Jesus (the “river”) with Christianity (which he likens to selling water by the river)–insisting that it is the former, not the later, to which we should give our devotion.

however, I grow concerned at the pejorative possibilities where the institutional church is linked to selling.

Yet one more reviewer notes this dichotomy in the book and is very precise in articulating the issue the book raises:

…Herein lies the hierarchy of Shane’s epistemology; experience is less fallible that logic, and is more trustworthy. I’m not sure I totally agree with this hierarchy, but that’s how he navigates this transition from rigid theological dogmatism to real and authentic spirituality (though he probably doesn’t want to use that word).  He says, “[Jesus] wants people to experience God’s love, rather than just think rightly about it.” This is profoundly true and vitally important, but I don’t think that we need to jettison belief into the realm of purely cognitive thought, I think that belief and even disciplined theological reflection can be though of as part of the experience of God, even if it means at times commanding our deeply felt experiential presuppositions into subordination to logical clarity.

I don’t think we need to think of religion and belief in such negative terms. Even if the establishment of the religious institution is not what Christianity is about, certainly our experiences with God in the contexts of community and solitude can be thought of as religious–of an authentically holistic kind of religion. It’s misleading and it might even be arrogant, in light of hundreds of years of church history, for us to come on the scene today and say, “religion, I have no need of you,” as though we somehow exist outside of religion…

(be sure to read the rest of this one!)

And then there was this essay by Karen Spears Zacharias, which I’ll let you read in full.

So… it’s complicated. Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t get a proper review copy of that one. (Nadia’s book, which they probably won’t send this late after release date, is no doubt equally complex.)  I’ll leave the last word to WIllow Creek’s Aaron Niequist:

As you can tell, this book is going to push some buttons.  Fundamentalists will scream as Shane pokes holes in Christianity’s claim to have a monopoly on the Truth, and post-modern, “spiritual but not religious” people will resist his high view and trust in Jesus Christ.  But I think that anyone who makes everyone uncomfortable might be on to something.

I’m not saying that I agree with every single word in “Selling Water By the River”, but here’s why I loved the book and am recommending it to you

(If anyone at Jericho Books wants to make a friend, you know where to find me!)

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