Monday, June 24, 2013

Book Review: Closer Still

This has been a difficult book to review. The Church of Ireland is such a small beast, that almost everyone knows everyone else. Lots of my friends have raved about this book, but I'm not just as enthusiastic to recommend it. There are some interesting insights, but on the whole, I'm not a fan.

In many ways, the book is an autobiographical reflection on several Bible passages, as the author, Scott Evans (youth worker and speaker) tells of his experience of Christianity, his reaction to it, and his returning:

'By my mid teens, if I was asked what a 'Christian' was, I would have answered that 'a Christian is someone who has accepted Jesus as their Lord and Saviour and doesn't get drunk, get high or get laid.' This probably hasn't been the case for everyone, but growing up in church taught me what a Christian was defined by what he or she didn't do.' (Loc 35-38)

His experience is further illustrated by the following: 'I can see why it was confusing to follow Jesus. On one hand, I have a very clear list of the things that a Christian does not do, while on the other, I had no idea who to be.' (Loc 43-48)

Lamenting on our need for the quick fix, Evans writes of Jesus: 'He calls people - messy, broken, unreliable people - to follow Him. And answering the call doesn't fix them; they don't just agree to follow Him and magically transform into the people He wants them to be.' (Loc 62-65) Rather, 'The life of faith is not a five- or eight- step plan, it's a journey.' (Loc 69-70)

Some of the Bible passages he focuses on are the woman at the well (John 4), the parable of the talents, the healing of the woman with the issue of blood.

There's also an extended reflection on how doubting Thomas has been misunderstood. 'Why couldn't he muster enough faith to proclaim that Jesus had risen? Perhaps because belief is not the central issue of Thomas's story. Perhaps it's because whether or not Thomas believed in Jesus was not as important as how much he loved Him.' (Loc 392-394) Yet that's not the point that Jesus makes in John 21 when he shows that it's all about believing, especially those who have not seen Jesus, that is, the rest of us!

The majority of the book is centred on the Parable of the Lost Sons, helpfully pointing out that 'there are two ways of running from God, two ways of losing ourselves and losing Him, the foreign land and the field.' (Loc 457-461)

His attitude to the Bible is, at times, interesting. 'I generally don't like passages that I've heard preached on a million times. It's like hearing a song or seeing an episode of The Simpsons one too many times: you lost interest and it loses its impact.' (Loc 72-74) Yet he also rails against the out-of-context plucking of Bible verses - such as the oft-quoted and oft-misunderstood Jeremiah 29:11. This was a great bit, so often lacking from some modern ministry, where Bible verses are wrenched out of context and misapplied.

Yet he then seems to drift into a similar misunderstanding by seeking to read yourself into the text and find yourself in the story: 'One of the things that I tell my students who are interested in reading the Bible is to read it imaginatively. To encounter Him, we must go beyond reading the text to reading ourselves into the text, imagining ourselves in the shoes or sandals of characters within the story, especially those who encounter Jesus and sometimes even Jesus himself.' (Loc 331-336) I'm not convinced that this is the why we have the Bible, nor that it is the way it is to be read.

Most troubling is his interpretation of the offering of Isaac and the faith of Abraham in Genesis 22. Following Rob Bell, Evans insists that God stops the knife to show that He is not like the other gods, who demand child sacrifice. 'It's not simply an issue of whether or not God can trust Abraham, it's Abraham's opportunity to discover that he can trust God, that he will not be subject to the cruel, insatiable hearts of others.' (Loc 614) And so on: 'To push this somewhat controversial interpretation of this passage even further, I sometimes wonder if Abraham actually failed the test. He has already shown his faithfulness so I'm not convinced that, after 25 years of obedience, God needs more evidence.' (Loc 614-616). It's a very controversial interpretation, which fails to take account of how the Bible interprets the incident - Hebrews 11 declares that 'By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac... He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.' (Heb 11:17-19)

The misunderstanding continues, as Evans then states that 'I wonder if God was hoping that Abraham would say no. Or at least ask why. In doing so, he would be living according to the heart of the God who reveals himself throughout the narrative of Scripture. Whether he passes or fails God's test, what's crucial is that this is God showing that He is not bloodthirsty, He is not insatiable, that His heart is good. That He can be trusted with our lives, our loves and our dreams.' (Loc 619-622). The offering of Isaac was replaced by a substitute, whose blood was offered. The sparing of Isaac points to the sacrifice of Jesus, where the good God who is also love, just and holy, is satisfied through the blood of the substitute. It is in this that God's love and goodness is revealed, rather than in hoping to provoke Abraham to refuse.

Similarly, the author seeks to reinterpret prayer by quoting positively a story of Mother Theresa who claimed that she doesn't say anything when she prays, nor does God, but rather, in his words, 'I think this is what home with God is like, what intimacy is all about. A communicative silence, two hearts becoming one, our lives changed by the life and heart of God.' (Loc 676) It seems to me to be in such contrast with Jesus who taught his disciples how to pray, by saying, 'When you pray, say...' (Luke 11:2)

As I've said, there are some useful insights, but there are also strange and dangerous interpretations of central Bible themes. For this reason, I just don't think I can recommend the book.

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