Amends by Eve Tushnet (Review)

Amends is the new novel by Eve Tushnet. Tushnet is probably best known as a blogger for‘s catholic channel and the author of the non-fiction, really really good book Gay and Catholic.  And that’s perhaps a good place to begin for people unfamiliar with this wonderful young writer.

As the title of her first book suggests, Eve Tushnet doesn’t fit easily in at least three camps. She is the child of ardent atheists, but is a convert to Catholicism. She identifies as a lesbian, but affirms and lives according to her Church’s teaching on human sexuality. The original subtitle for her blog was “Conservativism reborn in twisted sisterhood.” And that suits pretty well everything she writes.

A self-conscious outsider, Tushnet’s writing manages to unsettle the “just the way things are” of just about everyone–myself included–no matter what tribe they claim as theirs. And I think she’s great.

So, here’s the question I think Tushnet is engaging in this novel: how does one talk about sin and grace, about redemption and God, even Jesus and the sacraments to an audience for whom such language is, if it is known at all, saccharine or cliche?

By setting the story on a reality tv show, of course.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story: Amends is an MTV reality tv show in which six characters–a woman who identifies as a wolf, an Ethiopian Christian mystic, a conservative writer, a teen hockey star, a brash lesbian playwright, and a gay man who’s last job was in collections–learn about themselves, their addictions, and the harm they’ve inflicted. And they begin to make amends–hence the name of both the show and the novel. They are overseen by two tv executives hoping, in their own way, to make sense of themselves and, of course, to get the show renewed for another season.

This is a brilliant move. We might not be able to talk about sin and grace any more, but even the most secular among us knows all too well the inbuilt human capacity to make our lives difficult, or worse. We can easily find elements in one or more of the characters that echo in our own lives, that attract us. We can find similarly cringe-worthy elements that make us want to keep reading, too. And if the characters veer sometimes a little too close to caricature, it is always with Tushnet’s satirical wink and the reminder that this is, after all, reality tv.

Setting things on a reality tv show allows Tushnet the freedom to paint in even bolder colours than might be possible in a more “realistic” setting. The extreme behaviours make sense on reality tv, and therefore allow Tushnet to shout at her readers without actually raising her voice. This is a Flannery O’Connor move, allowing Tushnet to say, “Yes, this really messed up world full of really messed up people is the world that God loves!” to all who have ears to hear.

The banter is earthy, hilarious, and engaging. It can move from the ridiculous to the very thoughtful in a nanosecond. It skewers pop-culture’s sacred cows and invited us to reconsider ideas many of us think we’ve outgrown. It is a twisted, but very real and inviting, conservativism.

In short, Amends is Augustine’s Confessions cast as a novel for the age of Orange is the New Black.

Read it.

Review: Traces of the Trinity (Peter J. Leithart, Brazos, 2015)

Readers of the blog will know that Peter J. Leithart appears regularly in some form or other here. I have referred to his little books, Against Christianity and Between Babel and Beast. I have reviewed Defending Constantine and Athanasius. I link to his essays on First Thingswebsite regularly. So, I want to start by thanking Baker/Brazos for sending me this book.

Like all of Leithart’s work, it is quirky and that’s where I want to begin. J. K. Rowling advises her young readers that to be equipped for life, they might sometimes have to go through it diagonally (Diagon Alley). They might, in other words, have to adopt a perspective that, if not counter to that of the majority, is at least slightly askew. Leithart does the same in his work: in Against Christianity and Defending Constantine he takes the decidedly minority side that “Post-Constantinian Christianity,” as exemplified in the works of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas is deeply mistaken. In Between Babel and Beast, he offers a theological justification for the fact of empire and a warning that the latest global empire, America, is on the verge of becoming beastly. Through it all, he consistently manages to mortify both the “Christian Right,” and the “Christian Left.” Which is why I like him.

So what makes Traces quirky? Well, for a start, it’s odd to find a Reformed theologian this side of Barth engaging in unapologetically natural theology. And that’s what this work is. In fact, if you listen for it, you can almost hear the Basel professor putting down his wheelbarrow of books, banging his shoe and shouting “Nein!” in heaven. Having said that though, it’s not what one typically expects from natural theology. That is, it is decidedly NOT an attempt to work up from foundational claims about the nature of the world to the being of God. Rather, it is natural theology that is decidedly Reformed, and one that has clearly drunk deeply from the wells of Radical Orthodoxy, and especially the work of John Milbank.

Thus, the books grounding assumption is straightforward: if God is Trinity, then we should find traces of the Trinity—trinitarian patterns, reflections, vestiges—in what God has made. Specifically, Leithart takes one of the most difficult theological concepts—perichoresis or mutual indwelling—and looks for glimpses of it in creation.

Now a tangent. Perichoresis was a theological term hammered into meaning on the anvil of the Christological debates that culminated in Chalcedon. It was an attempt to explain how the natures of Christ, human and divine, subsist in one person without mixture or division. Each indwells the other such that each remains itself while at the same fully attuned to, and acting in harmony with the other. As the identity of the person of Christ receded and the identity of God came to the fore, perichoresis was pressed into service again, this time in order to describe the relationships that mark the inner life of God. Each person of the Trinity so indwells the other two that he is fully attuned to and utterly in harmony with them. None can be divided from the others. And yet, each remains a person.

Where does Leithart see traces of this reality? In the human/world relationship (ch. 1), in intra-human relationships (ch. 2), in erotic relationships in particular (ch. 3), in time (ch. 4), in language (ch. 5), in music (ch. 6), and in ethics (ch. 7). If such traces are present, what does this mean for actual practice, both generally human and specifically Christian? This question is taken up in chapter 8. Finally, chapter 9 provides an appropriate concluding theological gloss to the preceding discussion.

One will invariably be reminded of the social trinitarianism that was “all the rage” about twenty years ago, especially as is found in the work of the late Stanley J. Grenz and Catharine LaCugna (among many others). But it is best not to press this similarity too deeply. This movement has been rightly criticized as implicitly Feuerbachian—projecting from “the society we need” to an understanding of God that will support it. It ends up saying a lot about us, but nothing at all about God.

While Leithart does use some similar vocabulary (especially perichoresis), this is not the direction his work takes. Rather it is exactly the opposite. Moving from the identity of God as disclosed in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Leithart seeks to discern traces of that identity in what this God has made, and only then ask what lived difference this should make.

I found this book hard to start—like I said, its quirky—but once the lightbulbs started going on, I couldn’t put it down. Highly recommended for theological students and seminarians.

Spiritual Friendship by Wesley Hill (Brazos, 2015)

I have been looking forward to this book for a while—its arrival had been rumoured for some time among facebook friends. My anticipation had to do with both the subject—friendship, and the author, Wesley Hill, an Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, PA.

I am drawn to Hill’s work for three reasons. First, because while we’ve never met, we share a significant amount of professional and personal overlap. We both studied at Durham University, for example, and indeed we both found those years to be transformational: we both became Anglicans while there. We have common friends. The evangelical Anglican world (whether we are Episcopalian, Anglican Church of Canada, ANiC or ACNA) is a small one and we are just one degree removed. At points, when I read his work—I was introduced to him through his remarkable book, Washed and Waiting—I can almost anticipate what’s coming next and yet am surprised at how he takes and develops what I had “just known” was coming. In many ways, he seems to me to be a kindred soul.

Second, and following on, he inhabits the ever shrinking middle in the current debate about how best to welcome gay and lesbian people in Christian churches. He, along with other voices like blogger and Catholic convert Eve Tushnet, embraces the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage and does so as a gay man, thereby making him an object of pity and/or suspicion by people on both sides. He is either woefully mistaken or worse, some sort of “Trojan Horse” for the extremes, both liberal and conservative. It may be that I have my own quixotic bent toward doomed battles, what J.R.R. Tolkien called “the long defeat,” but for whatever reason, that makes him attractive to me. Although I am straight (that likely didn’t need to be said; it’s pretty obvious!), Hill and I are fellow travellers (albeit lonely ones) on this journey.

Third, I am drawn to Hill’s work because of a shared appreciation for C. S. Lewis’s work, and in this context especially, the little book, The Four Loves. Hill’s book, Spiritual Friendship is in many ways a friendly criticism of Lewis’s chapter on friendship. And that is what I want to focus my remarks on.

Hill and Lewis agree that modernity doesn’t quite know what to do with friendships. They have been displaced by other loves, notably, in Hill’s view, by an idealized and idolized view of marriage as the relationship without which no one will ever be complete. Modernity simply has no category for strong same-sex friendships and so must sexualize them. For example, David and Jonathan, or Aelred and his monks, or the rare but real Christian practice of “brother-making,” (vowed friendships), these must really be covers for not simply erotic, but sexualized love. Hill and Lewis both argue that this is a little like the assertion, “There’s an invisible cat in that chair.” The lack of a cat, rather than being counter-evidence, is regarded as conclusive proof of feline invisibility. What might happen, wonders Hill, if we take the Bible, the monks, and the vowed friends, at face value? How might that challenge our views of friendship?

Here Hill parts from Lewis, and rightly so. Lewis’s view of friendship is, for all of the above, very modern and not very medieval. It is primarily mental; it is bent toward a shared interest or project (here Lewis uses the metaphor of the friends standing side by side, looking at a common object rather than standing face-to-face, looking at each other). Hill counters that deep same-sex friendship blurs the lines with other loves—at points erotic, at points affectionate. While this certainly echoes my own experience with two friendships, I agree with Hill that it may well be the unique insight that gays and lesbians offer to the Church—and have been offering already for many centuries. Many modern western churches (I refuse to say the Church here) have followed modernity into a withered and withering conception of friendship that potentially does great harm not only to their gay and lesbian members, but to their straight singles, too (and having been a Christian single until my 30s, I speak also from experience).

The last chapter, “Patterns of the Possible,” is particularly helpful for those of us engaged in parish ministry for its suggestions.

I highly recommend this little work to all who wish to be unsettled and enriched.

A C. S. Lewis Electronic Library

Friends, a while back, I was asked to help advertise a great new resource for C. S. Lewis scholars, namely The C. S. Lewis Collection. Consisting of twenty-six primary works and four more edited collections, all the major works are included including Mere ChristianityMiraclesThe Screwtape Letters and The Space Trilogy. They even have three volumes of collected correspondence. That’s over 11000 pages of searchable text, 3000 of which is personal correspondence.

Not only does this product free up a significant amount of shelf space (and save some trees), it also helps those of us who research Lewis as much as we read him for enjoyment. Logos has taken the tagging technology that made them a major player in Bible software and applied it to the collection, enabling users to trace topics across the corpus wihtout having to manage multiple volumes (whether electronic or paper) to do so. This is not their first go round either. They have done the same with the works of Jonathan Edwards and have had great results.

The folks at Logos have been very gracious in permitting me an opportunity to “test run” the product and share my thoughts with you. It looks really exciting.

If you want to pre-order, click on the link above and receive a 30% discount off the full price! Check back here in a few days, after I’ve had a chance to work with the product and I’ll tell you more about it.


Steve Bell: An Appreciation

Two nights back, Rachel and I watched Burning Ember, a documentary from Refuge 31 Films. It is, in short, wonderful and I want to thank Steve and his assistant (and my former student), Amy for sending it to us with this long overdue blogpost, an appreciation for perhaps the most underrated Canadian artist alive.

I first was introduced to Steve’s music around Valentine’s Day, 1999. It was (I think) my 3rd or 4th date with Rachel. Steve was in concert at Canadian Mennonite Bible College (now part of Canadian Mennonite University) and this was her gift to me. A gift still freely and freshly given now for 16 years and many CDs later. Since that time, I have seen Steve in concert solo, with a band, and with other artists (notably, Mike Janzen, Carolyn Arends, and Bob Bennet) six more times. I have also crossed paths with him at Providence University College, where he would sometimes guest lecture. All this to say, I been fortunate to have experienced Steve (calling him Bell doesn’t feel right) and his music in different ways and arrangements and have had opportunity to match the music to the man in more informal settings. As a result, I have formed the following opinions.

(1) I wish this man was my friend. Corny, I know. It makes me sound like Chris Farley interviewing Paul McCartney–completely star struck. But there is (I hope anyway) a deeper point. I have seen Steve in enough and varied settings to know that his “onstage persona” is his offstage person. And that person is wise, thoughtful, theologically rich (a rare gift for a Christian musician) and committed to his art. He is a person whose qualities, demeanour, and integrity simply calls forth the desire of friendship in all kinds of people. I imagine that they leave his friends better for having known him. A cliché, of course, and used in far too many situations where it simply isn’t true. But I can’t think of another way to say it.

(2) I can’t believe he’s not Michael W. Smith, Bruce Cockburn, or even James Taylor huge. Steve’s musical talent is simply amazing. Burning Ember takes us through Steve’s journey to expand his brand and market, taking his whole career into view, but also focusing on his latest project, Pilgrimage, a collection of classic and new music, performed by Steve and other musicians, including Malcolm Guite, Carolyn Arends, The Bros. Landreth, and Bob Bennet. I love this collection. My favorite track is “Theotokos” (a demo version is here). A hymn of praise to the most beautiful woman God ever created, thanking her for bearing the Son of God. Anyway, the irony and injustice embedded in the documentary is that while Pilgrimage celebrates a wonderful 25 year career, Steve is still touring in rented vans, playing for dozens far more often than hundreds. A legacy project that should be filling major concert halls across North America is the platform from which Steve again is looking to “break” into a larger audience. Steve is one of the best guitarists currently performing and a poet and songwriter of the first order. He easily stands shoulder to shoulder with the singer/songwriter greats of this and earlier generations: Bruce Cockburn and James Taylor. He deserves to be as celebrated an artist in the Christian music scene as MWS. It’s wrong that he’s not.

(3) His fans are blessed by the fact that he isn’t as huge as his talent merits. It is to our benefit that Steve is not as big as he deserves to be, for it means that more often than not, his concerts are intimate and inviting and he remains accessible. If you write him, odds are he’ll write you back and not just the “signed-by-a-computer 8X10” write you back, either. This is Burning Ember’s double irony. Steve should be a more celebrated, better known artist than he is; that he isn’t has forged deep connections to his music among his fans, connections that sometimes can become personal.

So, Steve, thanks for enriching my life with your songs over the last 16 years. I am grateful. And, “Remember that time when you did that show with Carolyn and Bob at Steinbach Mennonite? That was so awesome!”

Review: Something Other than God

something other than god picFor a good chunk of this past semester (Fall 2014), I have been leading a class of Laurentian University students through Books I-VIII of The Confessions (Penguin Classics edition).  I really have enjoyed working through Augustine’s reflections on the gentle persistence with which God slowly bent his will to the divine will until the last obstacle was that will itself, and how, at the last, it gave way in a garden as the future saint read Paul’s call to lay aside reveling and drunkenness and instead to put on the Lord Jesus. It is a powerful conversion story. Perhaps the paradigmatic conversion story.

The purpose in the syllabus is to look at how Augustine synthesizes Neo-Platonic and Biblical thought, and how this in turn shapes Western thinking on love. Augustine’s synthesis shapes far more than that, of course. But the class is entitled “Ideas of Love,” and treats love as a major philosophical and theological concept in the Western tradition. So that’s what we focus on. (The unstated purpose is, I pray, to get students often with very little or no Christian formation to consider—even as Augustine did—the possibility that becoming a Christian of a traditional sort need not involve embracing absurd doctrines or a finally unsatisfactory way of life).

As I have been doing this at school, I have become fascinated with a fellow blogger, sought-after speaker, radio host, mom to 6 and homeschooler, Jennifer Fulwiler.  I first ran across her on EWTN’s The Journey Home , a programme on which the host, Marcus Grodi, invites people to speak of their conversion to Roman Catholicism. The youtube caption of Fulwiler’s episode was simply, “Jennifer Fulwiler: Former Atheist.”  Well, that caught my attention. I watched the show and wanted to know more. That led to a google search, which turned up her reality series, Minor Revisions. Detailing her fabulously frenetic family life even as she tried to finish up her memoir, the series had my wife and I captivated from the first moments of the first episode. I immediately liked her Facebook page and started watching for a release date. The book’s been out for a while now, but I finally picked it up—and devoured it—a couple of weeks ago.

The long-anticipated memoir is Fulwiler’s own conversion story, summarized on Journey Home and alluded to throughout Minor Revisions. Entitled Something Other than God (Ignatius, 2014), it stands squarely in the Augustinian tradition of conversion stories; indeed, I can’t help but wonder if some of the overlaps are deliberate—the slow clearing away of intellectual misgivings, the recognition that becoming a Christian meant more than intellectual assent to certain truths, but meant becoming a different sort of person, the growing awareness that God was not a concept which one adopted, but the one Person who really matters, the One who had been seeking the seeker from the start.  All these themes are, of course, themes in The Confessions. Even Fulwiler’s title, borrowed from C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, has a decidedly Augustinian ring. Here’s the Lewis quote in full: “[A]ll that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—[is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.” Whether the homage to the great North African is deliberate, I cannot say. Whether it is there cannot be doubted. Fulwiler is, among other things, an Augustinian. I hope, should she read this, she takes it as the compliment it is intended to be!

Something Other than God is smart, brash, funny, warm, insightful, and above all, brave. Fulwiler’s conversion comes after a long hard look at the implications of atheism—she quotes Bertrand Russell on the need to build life on a foundation of unyielding despair—from which our functionally atheistic culture seeks always to distract us. It is a conversion that entertains other possibilities. Other religious possibilities are mentioned (though not explored in detail) as part of her story; there is a genuine weighing of options and a real sense of the reality of risk. Not least because Fulwiler’s conversion is entire. She not only signs on for the Church’s teaching on contraception, and all that flows from it, but she does so in the midst of an at-risk pregnancy and the counsel of medical professionals to consider abortion, or at least artificial means of contraception to prevent future pregnancies. Whether or not you end up agreeing with her (or with Rome), you will not be able to deny that her decision was fully and authentically hers. As a woman.

I confess that it is this part of the story that most captivates me, because it is the most foreign to my experience. I’m a married Anglican priest. And here is a woman—whose continued work-life gives the lie to the notion that she is oppressed by the teachings of her church—using the very language of feminism (specifically, about the need for women to control their bodies, and for men to respect that) to defend Paul VI and Humanae Vitae.

No doubt, this will be the place where many will want to press Fulwiler further. If you do, check out her blog,  But before you do, read the book.

Which brings me back to my students. I do hope that some of my students stick with Augustine. And I hope that they’ll ask me for a modern telling of the timeless tale of the restless heart’s attempt to satisfy what only God can. I know where to send them.

Casual Vacancy Review

I was going to write a review of The Casual Vacancy, but decided, having read LaVonne Neff’s excellent contribution, mine would be redundant at best. Read hers over at Books and Culture. I will add only one (minor) point–in Pagford, even the virtues of the villains are vicious while the vices of the heroes are tragically noble. That flattened out the characters and detracted from what was supposed to be a “realistic” story, skewing it more to the allegorical, which Neff deftly addresses.

Review: Moral Formation According to Paul

Moral Formation according to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Paul’s Ethics

James W. Thornton (Baker Academic, 2011)

Paul is not a theologian. Daring claim, but one that appears to be justified by James W. Thornton’s new book, Moral Formation according to Paul. This is not to say that Paul is not interested in theology. He is. Rather, it is to insist that ethics, far from being an add on to Paul’s theological thought, is the key to understanding Paul rightly. Paul’s theology grows out of a desire to shape the identity of the ethnically mixed Christian communities he founded through ethics. If Bultmann, in other words, sundered Paul’s letters into unrelated indicative and imperative sections, Thornton puts them back together by insisting that the imperative must come first.

Paul, says Thornton, stands squarely in the ethical stream of first century Hellenistic Judaism (Introduction and Chatper 1). Paul argues in the same way, often appealing to the same biblical texts. The Hellenists were concerned with maintaining Jewish identity in Diaspora by forming distinct communities. Paul, says Thornton, has a similar strategy with his fledgling churches, with two significant differences: his communities no longer have an ethic foundation, but are mixed communities of Jews and Gentiles and Paul’s Hellenistic approach has been radically re-oriented by Jesus. Paul’s communities will receive, mould, and maintain their identities by living lives worthy of the Gospel.

Subsequent chapters, (2 through 8) then look at specific examples in the Pauline and disputed letters that flesh out this thesis. Thus, community formation and moral instruction in the Corinthian Correspondence  is the subject of chapter 2. This is followed by the place of ethics in Paul’s overall catechesis in 1 Thessalonians (chapter 3), the virtue and vice lists (chapter 4), the Law (chapters 5-6), the love command (chapter 7), and the disputed letters (chapter 8). The book follows with a conclusion that, drawing on previous chapters, presents a convincing argument that Paul’s moral vision is coherent (these are not haphazard or ad hoc instructions), and, while inevitably incomplete, contains the keys for further moral reasoning within the early communities in Paul’s absence.

Paul, concludes Thornton, is teaching his communities to read and live the Law, and especially the summary thereof in the holiness code of Leviticus, through the lens of the love of neighbor command which is given fresh emphasis by the Lord himself. Paul does not end the Law in other words, but keeps it at the core of his moral vision. It is changed by a Christological reorientation, but it is not set aside.

I am not a New Testament scholar. But I do expect that this book will create a stir in Pauline scholarship, especially in the renewed debates on justification. For if Thornton is right, justification by faith simply isn’t the article by which the church stands or falls. More than that, though, is beyond my competence to say.

This book is very important for pastors who, like me, are trying to convince their people that the Old Testament continues to be an abiding witness to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and an important ethical witness about how Christians are to conduct themselves. “Why can’t we just do what the disciples did in Acts 15 and throw out the Old Testament?” Have you heard that question? I have! Or “Jesus said nothing about sex. Why are we so hung up on it?” If I had a nickel. . . . Thornton gives pastors a powerful reading of Paul from which sensitive pastors and curious lay people can wrestle with these and other related questions, and come to some surprising answers.

If you are looking for a good antidote to “creeping Marcionism,” James Thornton has given you one here!

Review: Be Not Afraid

Review: Sam Wells, Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear with Faith (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011)

If there is a prevailing mood in my parish these days, it’s anxiety. My people are anxious that their kids and grandkids are not going to be able to live the life that they did; that they are looking at a generation which, for the first time in a very long time, will not do as well as the one previous. They are anxious about the global politics and how they impinge upon them. The European debt crisis, the sluggish economic recovery in the US, the potential for the war in Syria to expand to expand beyond its borders: these aren’t far away problems. Their potential and actual impact upon friends, family, to say nothing of personal savings, makes them “down the street” instead of “across the world” events. They are anxious about their health—what will the next round of tests say?—their jobs—when will it be my turn to be axed?–

And I’m not immune. When I tuck my kids into bed, when I pray for them, when I talk with my wife about them, I feel fear. My trust in God is not so resilient, so strong as to be immune from these sorts of  questions. Is yours?

If your faith community is like mine, if you are like me, you will devour Sam Wells’ book, Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear With Faith (Brazos, 2011). Some of you might know Wells as the Dean of the Chapel at Duke Univserity or as a major young theological ethicist and interpreter of Stanley Hauerwas. Others of you might know him as the newly appointed rector of St. Martin’s in the Fields, London. Wells has worn academic and pastoral hats in his career. In this book, we hear the heart of the parish priest (indeed, much of it reads like it found its first life in the pulpit). It is a popularly written, engaging call not to refuse fear so much as to meet fear with the deep resources provided by Christian faith.

The book falls into five parts, with each inviting readers to be not afraid of death, weakness, power, difference, faith and finally life. The material is theologically and ethically rich. It is presented in a way that it would be a fine discussion book for a small group or Sunday School class of college age or higher. And while clearly not an academic text, academics will find much here to chew on—as I certainly did.

I was particularly struck by the arrangement of the first and last parts—be not afraid of death, and be not afraid of life—and how everything else: weakness, power, difference and faith fit in between. Wells, throughout, invites us to life and to live all the while finding our courage in Christ, who is our life.

Highly recommended!

Book Review: Chaos and Grace

Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit

Mark Galli

Baker Books, 2011

                In this book, Mark Galli, noted Christian author and senior managing editor at Christianity Today gives us a narrative account of the person and work of the Holy Spirit organized around the poles of chaos and control.  In the first half of the book (the first 10 chapters), Galli moves us through Genesis, the Psalms, Prophets,  Gospels and Paul, tracing the theme of liberation or chaos. The second half is a fusing of horizons—the contemporary world and the book of Acts. It seeks to interweave our narrative and the biblical one, wondering what might happen were churches and disciples bowled over by the holy chaos that the liberating spirit of God brings.

 His exegesis in these chapters is “loose” (I think he would agree with that description) and uncritical (i.e., lacking notes or other scholarly apparatus). This approach is undertaken for two reasons. The first—he is aiming at a popular audience and while he hopes his exegesis is sound (as far as I can see, it largely is), he is not addressing the scholar and therefore doesn’t use the scholar’s tool kit. The second is more substantive. He wants to write in a way that supports his argument. And his argument is that living in surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit is about surrendering control to another, to set loose holy chaos in one’s life. And Galli fears that scads of notes, references to commentaries and controversies about sources and authors , etc., would actually undermine that argument by trying yet again to control the biblical witness.

Much of this book is edifying and parts of it are brilliant. My personal “aha” moment came on page 112 where Galli talks about the strange disconnect or lack of integration between the vertical (our relationship with God as expressed in the great truths of mercy and grace) and the horizontal (our relationship to our brothers and sisters as expressed in the great call to discipleship and the pursuit of justice).  The result of the disconnect is a harsh Pelagianism that browbeats Christians with guilt, fear, shame, and moralism. This astute observation is not limited to this or that end of the evangelical ethical spectrum. One could easily evaluate the writings of, say, Jim Wallis and Ralph Reed here and see easily what Galli is driving at. The book is full of such insights—sometimes small, sometimes larger—that make one put it down, ponder a while, and then want to take it up again.

Still, I am not without my quibbles. There are two and both have to do with the notion of chaos. First of all, I don’t think chaos is a really helpful metaphor for helping us to understand the work of the Spirit. A garden, for example, even a very well-tended one, will, if it is thriving, look chaotic. But only at first or second glance. Beneath the apparently haphazard hum of insects and weeds and ripening fruit there is a deep harmony and order. It seems to me, the work of the Spirit is like that. It is not chaos all the way down. It feels chaotic only to those so addicted to control that they cannot trust the Spirit to do his own ordering work in his own way and at his own pace. On the other hand, and to use a different metaphor, rapid, random and finally chaotic cell growth is not a sign of life, but of death. Such chaotic and finally purposeless growth is, literally, cancer.  Galli does recognize this and helpfully talks about obedience and discipleship in the second half of the book, but there did seem to me to be a disconnect between the halves here and I think it is embedded in the controlling metaphor. Could a metaphor that suggested uncontrollability, life, and trustworthiness and order (which is not the same as control) be found?

Second, I find chaos to be unhelpful because there’s chaos, and then there’s chaos. Theologians often have ecclesiological debates that reduce to a chicken or egg kind of question. One the one hand, there are those who say, “Where the Spirit is, there is the Church,” and on the other, there are those who insist, “Where the Church is, there is the Spirit.” I don’t want to enter into this debate right here, but I don’t think it will be settled with what I take to be Galli’s reframing of the dictum as, “Where the Spirit is, there is chaos.” Here, my objection might have something to do with audience.  Standing in a liberal tradition that has, by and large, lost its way, I can say to Galli that not all that is chaotic is of the Spirit and to embrace chaos is not necessarily the Spirit. Or another example (Can I name names?): Todd Bentley has recently claimed the Holy Spirit told him to kick a woman in the face . Now that’s chaotic. And I will tell you categorically and without apology that the spirit Bentley is listening to is not Holy. The point is, many of us—who are not coming from straight-laced evangelical congregations—need help to discern the ordering work of the Spirit beneath the chaos so that we can discern just what chaos is His and what is not.

But these are not reasons to avoid the book. I am better for having read it. It is wise and wild and stretching. Ideal for an adult bible study class.