Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Book Report

One of the nice things about a train ride is you have lots of time to read. . .

I started and finished Ernest Gordon's To End All Wars while on the way to Montana. Karina and I had watched the movie a couple months ago (be warned: it is incredibly brutal) and been moved by this powerful story. Unfortunately, as it turned out, the book and the move are not the same story. In fact, other than the similarity of the major premise (a British officer in a Japanese POW camp during WW2), they had almost nothing in common.

However. . .

That was only disappointing insomuch as I kept waiting for certain events from the movie to show up. The movie had colored my expectations for the book, which meant I couldn't take the book on its own merits. Which is too bad, because, upon completing the book, I would say it is as powerful as the movie, perhaps even more so. But you have to let the book speak for itself. The story is truly miraculous, as this band of prisoners devolve into a wild bunch of animals at the hands of their captors, only to be transformed by the Spirit of Christ into a true Community of compassion and care. Somehow, in the midst of hell, these men found the power to love each other, to care for each other, to even forgive their Japanese tormentors. When people ask "Does Christianity work?", the story of this book says "absolutely!" And in a day and age of spiteful attacks, divisive language, polarized religions and selfish money-grubbing politicians and religious leaders, there is a real lesson here about what being a True Follower of Christ is all about. In fact, I think it is a perfect example of what Scot McKnight is arguing for in his latest book. But more on that later.

First, a quote from Gordon: "We wanted to learn now what Christianity had to say about our redemption. Before we could do, we had to be. It was not only our minds but also our wills that had to be changed. We had to be called into being by love. That lonely figure on the Cross had redeemed mankind by His love and sacrifice. Yet while that redemption was a once-for-all event, it was also a fact that we had to be redeemed daily to be in a state of being redeemed. . . .We had two alternatives: we could choose the way of men, based on the sovereignty of the natural order, closed, sealed and impersonal; or we could choose the way of Jesus Christ, free and personal, based on the sovereignty of God the Father. The wind of the spirit had blown upon us; we could not prove how or whence it had come. But our experience pointed to a source beyond ourselves. We knew personal fulfillment, love, joy, peace, wholeness, as we committed ourselves to the One who had called us. Only as we responded to this Word did we receive the power to progress toward true humanity. Our life on the horizontal plane was made meaningful at the point where it met the vertical. At the point marked by the Cross we found ourselves."

Just before we left, I also finished Stephen Lawhead's "Scarlet," the second book of his Robin Hood trilogy. It's not fiction on par with, say, Tolstoy or Dickens, but as far as Christian fiction goes, it's about the best I've come across. Put it this way: I enjoy it, and I can recommend it without being embarrassed, unlike a lot of books in the Christian Fiction aisle.

And last night I finally finished Sara Miles' Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion. You know, there are those books you read and quickly forget. There are those books that give you an interesting thought or two. And then there are books that get under your skin and completely and forever change the way you look at things. This is one of the third kind. This book is powerful, it is overwhelming. You can not read this book and approach the Lord's Supper the same way again. You can not read this book and think of Christianity the same way. This book will change you.

It will also, probably, bother you. Sara is raw. She's rough. She uses language and lives a lifestyle that would make most Christians furrow their brow. She throws out statements like this: "You know," Swami Jeff told me once, "God couldn't care less about the church. We don't understand the Eucharist, or that bread and wine live within us, so we ritualize the things that hold the mystery. We focus on the container and formalize the mystery. But you can't do that." Which is, of course, so wrong in so many ways. God does care about the Church. The Church is God at work in the world. And there are so many other things about this book that are so bothersome. And offensive.

And yet, her voice is necessary, because she get so much right. She understands the radical, accepting love of Jesus Christ for this world. She gets that love for Jesus demands a love for all his children. She gets that serving Christ is more important than showing up to church and looking pretty. "Doing the Gospel rather than just quoting it was the best way I could find out what God was up to." She gets that feeding the poor is one of the essentials of following Christ. And she gets the fact that Christ is for the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the hungry. She understands that the Kingdom of God is right here, right now, right under our noses, if we would only open our eyes to see it. She hammers home the idea that community is core to Christianity - but not the community we choose; it's the community God calls to us, and calls us to. She gets the Modern Church. "My suspicion was that committees in churches served the same purpose as committees in other institutions: They were holding tanks for people who professed interest in an issue but didn't always want to act." And, I've got to tell you, the story of her conversion, of how she walked into church, received Communion, and was overcome by God, is breathtakingly powerful. I wish all could read her story.

But, in the end, a lot of Christians will be scandalized by much of who she is. And there are parts that make me uncomfortable. Until I realize who she really is: a sinner saved by grace, on the way to holiness. And this book is simply one step in that process.

Now, it's onto the next book I've been excited about - Scot McKnight's A Community Called Atonement. The best part of this book - it connects doxis with praxis - what we believe with what we ought to be doing. It's about the atonement lived in daily life, not in obtuse theories and ivory-tower debates. It's about atonement working in our lives, which is the only place that it really matters

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