Monthly Archives: August 2007

Initial Thoughts on A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity

Now that the discussion about Spencer Burke’s controversial book A Heretic’s Guide to Eternity has died down a bit, I’ve finally gotten around to picking it up and reading through a bit of it. I jumped right to the sections that seemed most controversial, especially Spencer’s thoughts on salvation and hell.

Knowing Spencer a little from the ETREK courses he leads, I find the following statement to be classic Spencer, “People often ask how a loving God can send people to hell. My response is that I don’t think God does. I do, however, believe that God allows people to choose hell—whatever that might be” (200). This is another way of saying his belief that salvation is an opt-out situation, and not an opt-in.

When Spencer floated these ideas in the fall of 2004 at the ETREK course I attended, he stirred up the pot quite a bit, especially among the more conservative Presbyterians in the group. The difference between then and now is that Spencer floats these ideas, and then follows with a series of Bible studies from the Gospels illustrating the ways that God seeks people out and then is either received or rejected. In other words, Spencer has some strong support for his opt-out scheme.

Of course salvation is a touchy issue, and when someone suggests we’ve been preaching, teaching, and sharing a message that isn’t quite right, the defensive position becomes most natural. I haven’t read Spencer’s book cover to cover yet, but for now I find his ideas provocative and helpful. 

Whenever I’m sharing the Gospel with people or simply explaining parts of Christianity with others, I make a point of including some diverse perspectives. This serves to open the conversation further and really draws people out. Instead of telling them how it is, we can discuss the merits of one view over another. Spencer gives us some food for thought here.

Whether or not Spencer is correct with his opt-out teaching, I do think his ideas have grown and developed over time. This is not a notion that he whipped up to sell books. He’s been wrestling with it over time and has some support for it. The book itself is well-written, even if some reviewers have lamented that Spencer is quite vague in his use of terminology at times.

I don’t plan on finishing it any time soon, as it’s a bit longer than I expected (I mean, the first edition is a hardback!), but I’ll plug away at it from time to time and share some thoughts.

If My Town Had a Newspaper . . .

My little Vermont town of Arlington is nestled in between the larger towns Manchester and Bennington, so we unfortunately do not have our own paper to report local news. However, if we did, the paper would record the following:

  • A huge willow tree toppled over on Saturday due to high winds across from the Wayside General Store on route 313. It seems to have just missed a barn. The roots face the road so it’s super cool to see as you drive by.
  • A bunch of Vermont Fish and Wildlife workers were working down on the Battenkill River by the Covered Bridge this week, leading to further speculation that the recent finding of bacteria (also known as “rock snot”) in the river could be a real big deal.
  • On River Road a man in a small, white ranch house has been staying up late plotting the demise of the deer who ate all of the wild blackberries in his yard, to say nothing of the blueberries and raspberries.

Well, that last one may not qualify as local news, but I decided this week that if I was going to kill any animal, it would most certainly be the stupid deer(s) who ransack our yard, Bambi be damned. I think I’ll have to work on some kind of electric fence for next year. Then we may have some news …

What are you looking for in church?

A friend asked me this question today, and in a rare moment of clarity, I actually came close to putting my thoughts and feelings into something resembling a proper statement.

What am I looking for in church? I’m looking to meet with God along with fellow Christians. Arriving at such a simple statement has been a daunting process, since church has become so much more than an encounter with God, if we even get around to actually meeting God at all.

Before I fall into the “I’m emerging and want to whine about the church” trap, I should probably flip my question around a little. What is God looking for in church? Or perhaps we can whittle it down to, “What is God looking for?”

Perhaps the simplest answer is: “us.” I may flatter myself and the rest of humanity with such a statement, but when I look at the message of scripture and the experiences of Christians through the Holy Spirit, it seems that God is quite interested in keeping in touch with us.

And if meeting God–by that I mean a real life-changing, spiritual encounter through the Holy Spirit–is most important, then what does that look like and what does that mean for church meetings? Are we a little too focused on the talk and not so much on the practice of Christianity in our meetings?

The verse that keeps coming to my mind regarding church is 1 Corinthians 4:20 “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” I’m currently wrestling what that “power” looks like for a gathering of Christians.

My Book with NavPress or Why It’s Hard to Blog Lately

While folding laundry and listening to the latest podcast from “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” this evening, I was regretting my lack of blog posting this summer. Two or three posts a week isn’t much for someone used to posting regularly ever day. And then I realized that I have a reason for this drop in posting, and more than that, I haven’t publicly posted on it yet.

Much of my thought and writing time has been consumed of late because I’m working on a book that will be published with NavPress in the Fall of 2008. Morning, noon, and night I’m editing, researching, and writing.

Working at a day job four days a week and keeping up with house and rabbit chores means that I’m quite busy of late, especially with company and all kinds of trips to Indiana, Boston, Ohio, and Philly on the schedule.

My current goal is to have a draft of the book together by September 1st. If I have a really good week, that may happen. After that I’ll be working on two study guides and revisions.

The book is tentatively titled Theology for Everyone (that will change for certain), and it aims to provide a simple introduction to contextual Christian theology. Planting theology in the middle of our relationship with God and in his mission to bring redemption to creation, I hope to provide an alternative to the divisive theology that does more to divide than unite and bring life.

The project began as an independent study with Dr. John Franke of Biblical Theological Seminary. Under Franke’s direction I wrote a massive paper that is the foundation for the book. Though it has changed quite a bit, all for the better, and been given different titles, the same goal of making theology accessible for the church has remained.

While the book is still in the formative stages, I’ll be looking for input this week in a few areas. I would be grateful if each reader gave them some thought and either posted a reply or passed them on to someone who may have a perspective to share. Stay tuned!

Self-Affirming Theology

I was recently listening to a Christian teacher preach through a passage of scripture that has profound implications for the church and the way we share the truth. I thought of a few areas where the American church has some issues, and I surely overlooked plenty of my own blind spots as well.

The sermon ended up doing two other things than what I had in mind: explaining what’s wrong with the world and what’s OK with the church. Though gentle and devoid of righteous indignation, the sermon amounted to little more than a pat on the back for the church and a wag of the finger at the world. In short, the sermon lacked relevance for today.

Theology is toothless when we study scripture and come up with interesting Biblical data and stray away from speaking prophetically to our world and to the church. Surely there are times when the church has things right and should be affirmed when appropriate, but when we have it coming, teachers and preachers who tip toe across the soft ground of self-affirmation do far more harm to the church than good.