Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God – A Review (Or Recommendation)

Most anyone reading this is likely familiar with the portrait of Jonathan Edward’s vengeful God who loathes sinners. He is quite angry and is quite theologically present. Some might find it a little odd to write contra a sermon from the middle of the 1700’s. As one friend told me from reading Zahnd’s latest work, “I’m surprised someone hasn’t already accomplished that play on words and wasn’t that in like the 1800’s?” Well, close. However, one chapter into the book and it isn’t hard to see that it isn’t just Jonathan Edwards Zahnd is writing against, no. This is a theological manifesto from someone who has been to the very feet of the angry God. It’s important to understand this isn’t some anti-reformed, anti-neo-Calvinist book, but rather someone who is troubled (and rightly so) by the implications some of these systems produce.

Zahnd fully understands the theological world (and damage) of those holding to the vengeful God. The chief question for Zahnd isn’t whether or not you can stockpile verses from the Bible about God’s vengeful nature or his anger, the question is, “Is it true?” Again and again, Zahnd will revisit this question throughout the book. It’s an important one for anyone reading the book. I want to start with a couple disclaimers, and some tips on reading the book for anyone from the neo-reformed camp, fundamentalist, or conservative evangelical camp.

Disclaimer number 1: It’s important for any review to be just that, a review. They are most effective if the reviewer can keep their personal feelings out of it and just review. But, I won’t be able to do that completely. That’s because I love Brian Zahnd, I’m sharpened by him, and I’m beyond thankful for him. I listen to his sermons on morning walks, I read his blog regularly, and have all of his works. This is my first review of his, but I do want to give the disclaimer that I am fully on board with BZ, so perhaps it is better for this to be more of a recommendation. It’s my website after all.

Disclaimer 2: I will write about the good and better parts of the books. Things I thought were exceptional and thing(s) that I thought could be better (you’ll see that I don’t really mean this).

For the neo-reformed, fundamentalist, and conservative evangelicals: To really enjoy this book you’ll need to step out of your camp and tread the waters with BZ. Bring an open mind, and perhaps you’ll see why BZ made a transition theologically from many of the things you hold dear.

The Good

Ten compact chapters that cut straight to it. This book will take you a few hours to finish, and much longer to chew on. These chapters get after the theological issues we find ourselves in with a “flat reading of scripture.” The waters get muddy when we aren’t able to distinguish (if we even try) between the God of the Old Testament who seems to be a retributive, vindictive, angry warrior, and the God revealed in Jesus. We begin to see the difficulty in balancing the God who MUST be satisfied with the penalty bearing substitute, the God who MUST be just and have the eternal torment of those who do not believe, and the God who IS love as he is revealed in Jesus.

Each chapter is beautifully written (Brian Zahnd is if nothing else, a wonderful writer and communicator). They are easy to track with and engaging. He doesn’t waste time with all the theological jargon and cuts to the chase. You’ll be thankful for it because there will be many times you’ll need to pause and reflect.

The Great

My favorite thing about the book (and BZ) is his Jesus-centered reading of the Bible. Jesus is Lord, and that means even of the Bible. How we understand God is in the face of Jesus. Brian Zahnd is so helpful in this as we wade through the waters of Old Testament violence, eternal conscious torment in Hell, penal substitutionary atonement, and something as complex as the book of RevelationBrian Zahnd delivers a beautiful and consistent picture of reading the scriptures through a Christocentric lens and understanding the God who is revealed in Christ, as well as the massive theological implications of that revelation.

The Lack (not for me)

There is one area that I have to write about as it came up a couple of times with some reformed friends in their reading of the book. Each of them had an issue with chapter 3, Jesus is what God has to Say. Now, I would be clear here that I had no issues with this chapter. I thought BZ wrote with clarity on this difficult topic. The dilemma is if Jesus is the perfect revelation of God, then why do we subordinate him to the written word of God that is written to point to him? It is an odd conversation to have. Jesus is the perfect revelation of God, right? Right. He stands over the Bible, right. No. What? This is a much more complicated theological topic than I would even want to cover in a book review, but the dilemma seems to be (to some!) that BZ is diminishing the scriptures (and he isn’t). Christ stands over the Old Testament. If we really want to know what God is like we look at Jesus, you “…can’t cite Moses to silence Jesus.”

At any rate, it is something to be aware of if you’re in any of the above-mentioned circles. However, as I have told my friends Brian is preaching through this book and I expect him to cover this in more detail (though I don’t expect them to listen…alas). Additionally, I have not spoken with anyone who has read this book that has walked away thinking BZ has anything but an incredibly high view of scripture (he just has a higher view of Christ).

Bottom Line

Any Christian should read this book. Brian has been on this journey for a long time. You will come away from this book with fresh eyes to read scripture with, a much clearer view of Jesus as the revealed God, and a much clearer understanding of some deep biblical issues. Brian Zahnd is an engaging communicator and will challenge any reader. Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God is a wonderful work and will benefit absolutely any body. You can pick it up here, and I hope it blesses you as much as it has me.

Poems through John: Poem 2, Wine – John 2:1-12

From my own wedding, to all the weddings I’ve attended with all the relatives no one wanted to invite. All the relatives no one wants to like. We’ve seen them, we might be them. Too drunk to stand, underdressed, too loud, or running late (true story: my uncle literally walked in the room as my wife was about to walk down the aisle…there I was up front with my bride coming towards me…and my uncle too).

The funny thing is that Jesus is always most interested to be around the people we don’t want to invite. I wonder what the guests in Cana, the ones on the fringe of the invite list, thought of this whole ordeal? There’s a big part of me that believes Jesus acted, that Jesus brought this better wine mostly for them. Sure, the master of the feast is the only one we see taste it, but Jesus isn’t much for doing things for the people in positions of prominence or power. It’s always the one’s who are too drunk, too dirty, underdressed, and too loud that he finds his way towards. He’d be just at home at the “barely made it” table as he would anywhere else.

Wine – John 2:1-12

Ain't got the right clothes
Shoes don't fit
They got holes
Got greasy hair
Got a dirty soul

Whatever.

I'm at this weddin' anyway
I could use a drink
"Ain't no wine..."
S'what that lady said

Ain't nothin' in them jars, sir
Don't know what y'think
Ain't nobody want that water to drink

They takin'em that cup?

Whatever.

Tried to tell ya, mister
Don't know what y'think
Ain't nobody want that water to drink

He call that good?
Did'e say best?
Must've the wrong idea
Takin' his hostin' a little far
I seen him get that water from the jar

Whatever.

I'm thirsty anyway
Might as well drink

Sir, is there more o' that wine for me?
Don't know what I thought
I'll drink whatever y'got
Every drop

Poems through John: Poem 1, Word – John 1:1-18

This year at The Table we’re teaching through the Gospel of John. This has been a book that has always fascinated me. One of the things I decided to do through this has been to write a poem from each of the sections we’re covering. I’ll post these in order through the year.

I suppose a lot of folks would be happy to write or read another theological blog about a book of the Bible. A lot of times I believe the arts can say what we’re trying to say. What our souls might wanna say. I prefer the latter at this stage in my life with Christ. Art always says what words don’t seem to be able to. Music and poetry always mean what conversations try to mean, what we don’t seem to be able to say.

Up first is “Word” from John 1:1-18.

Flesh and Blood
Bone and Skin
Somewhere
Before time could even begin

Way before any tick-tock
Before anything even reared its head
Somewhere
Before light could spread
There was a Word

Way before the dark ran roughshod all over us
Before the great break occured
Somewhere
There was a Word

Flesh and Blood
Bone and Skin
Somehow
In a Word
Healing would begin

Grace In The Depths: A Poem From How to Survive a Shipwreck

A year ago exactly I was in the middle of the hardest spiritual and emotional turmoil I can remember. A wonderful friend recommended Jonathan Martin’s recently released How to Survive a Shipwreck. It was my introduction to Jonathan. I could not be more thankful for his writing/teaching/prophetic voice. Shipwrecked: I don’t think there was a better word for how I felt. Shipwrecked. It is one of the best books I have ever read, and certainly the most important book I have read in the past five years. You can purchase it here.

This book was a catalyst for healing in me. After all the words and waves settled I began to write, and what came from that was a poem. I’ll post it here, maybe you can resonate with some of this. If so, read this wonderful book by Jonathan Martin, I promise the waves will settle soon, and if you’re at the bottom, I promise there is grace down there too.

Grace In the Depths

 Sinking into the depths
 No drinking, only thirst
 The weight of sin and separation
 No foothold, shipwrecked, only desperation
 “Save me” I cry out
 Will this truly continue?
 Is there no compassion within you
 To rescue one as submerged?
 The salt-water waves surround me
 Thundering, crashing, swallowing
 No light now
 Only darkness abounding
 My eyes grow dim
 There truly is no sign of Him
 This is the fate of the broken and down trodden
 To be swallowed up at the dirt-floor bottom

 How could I have not known?
 In Him I've never been alone
 The chaos that surrounds
 This mire pit of blood-drip sinking with no clinging
 The salt-water wrath was mine to bear
 But you turned the cup face up drinking
 Swallowing every drip-drop ounce of wrath
 It’s not in separation that I’ve been submerged
 This self-idolization must be purged
 For in the depths there is death
 Blackness met with a promise kept
 Out of chaos, light
 The waves will settle
 At the bottom of this place
 Is the end of me
 Swallowed by this raging sea
 Swallowed wrath, new identity
 At the bottom of this place you wait
 For you were plunged first
 Bearing what I deserve

 The waves will settle

Reinvention and Resurrection: The Gospel According to Brand New

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I was 14 when I found Brand New. As a freshman in high school with hormones in full swing, I ate up every word on Your Favorite Weapon. I was equally transfixed by Deja Entendu. When “Sowing Season” began on The Devil And God Are Raging Inside Me I was more floored than anything else. How has this band been able to completely reinvent themselves with every record? Daisy was no different, this band was once again a new band.

It’s pretty rare to have a band that grows with you. I’ve had a Brand New album for each major milestone in my life. Two albums in high school, two in college, one as a husband and father. Each of those seasons and times was filled with struggles and flux, and each met with something from Brand New.

Science Fiction is no exception. This album is full of personal and communal turmoil, with heaps of writhing and longing to be better (or healed). Themes found on Science Fiction seem like anything but fiction in today’s world. It feels more prophetic than fiction. “Desert” presents a protagonist easily associated with a protesting White-Nationalist from last week’s Charlottesville riots. “137” sounds a lot like what the world of “fire and fury” nuclear war would look like.  Yet even better, Lacey is able to get underneath the reality of the human condition – all the longing (for hope) – and all the turmoil (at our inability) we feel. Not simply in times of potential nuclear threat, or marching of White-Nationalist, but daily. These two seemingly unreconcilable realities and pulls within our world define our daily struggle. Yet, they get after our deepest longings.

This album demonstrates the complexities that each of us has with God and ourselves. Personal turmoil is an easy theme of the album that begins with a therapy session. “Waste” is a wonderfully dark example of the reality of personal turmoil and demons. We’re “stuck like glue” to the parts of us that we hate so much, holding onto the tiniest glimmer of good at the continual plea, “don’t lose hope,” after all, “you are not alone.” Our daily lives are filled with the sense of personal turmoil that Science Fiction holds out so beautifully. That kind of writhing is known to each of us, at the dirt-floor basement-bottom. But this album isn’t all gloom, there are very real themes of hope threaded throughout.

A band that is incredibly adept at reinventing themselves and their sound may have left us all wondering if that same reinvention is possible in the world we inhabit. It doesn’t seem likely. But maybe what Brand New is after isn’t a reinvention, but a resurrection. That kind of newness all the writhing seems to be longing for is met with resurrection in a way that it could never be met with a reinvention. We needed the dark-reality-reminder from Brand New, and I’m not saying that as an enormous fan of this band, I’m saying that as a student of the human condition, as someone with the lowest possible anthropology.

If there was an album we needed this year it was Science Fiction. I confidently assert this to be the album of the year. Each of us hope to be brand new at the end of our days, our longings fixed on renewing or reinventing ourselves. In reality, we all need a little resurrection. Here’s to hoping for a resurrection for this band, who has promised to throw in the towel after this fall tour. But for those of us who are deeply aware of our faults and failures, I’ll let Jesse Lacey have the last word:

“I’m hoping that in time, you can lay down all this weight you’ve been carrying around, and maybe one day you’ll find your way to climb up out of your grave”

Must Listen List: Lit Me Up, Waste, 137, and Batter Up

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When the World is New

“When the image is new, the world is new.” — Gaston Bachelard

I remember where I was sitting the first time I heard the Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song Rebels. What it was like hearing that tone and voice that solely belongs to Petty belt “I was born a rebel, down in dixie on a Sunday morning, with one foot in the grave and one foot on the pedal, yeah I was born a rebel.” It was a spiritual moment. The world was new to me. I saw Petty in a different light. A new image.

I remember how I felt about art. Typically unaffected by its beauty, irregularity of style, the different perspectives of artists, the different mediums. It wasn’t until I met my wife (who is an artist) that my perspective on art changed. The world was new. Images now filled with complexities reflecting different artists and the world they were seeing.

When the image is new, the world is new.

“Whoever is in Christ is a new creation, the old has gone, the new has come.”

The image for you is new. So the world is new. Today, this day, and ever. New.