June 29, 2011

Love Wins by Rob Bell

I feel as though I'm in hyperbole mode with my reading lately - everything is so fantastic. It must be my new reading spot - my wonderful new daybed on the back patio that I outfitted with what I imagine might be Cape Cod-looking linens.

Anyway, this latest very good book by Rob Bell asks more questions than it answers but the questions are the exciting thing - the fact that they're allowed to be asked and in fact there are lots of intriguing answers as well. The book is subtitled A book about heaven, hell and the fate of every person who ever lived. Bell, who is the pastor of megachurch Mars Hill, believes in God and he believes that Jesus was immortal, but among the biggest questions he deals with is "which God do you believe in?" and "which Jesus?" He believes that "we shape our God and then our God shapes us." He doesn't mean that we influence who God is, but that we each construct in our minds an idea of who God is and that's what we go by.

Bell's basic premise is his title. Love wins. He doesn't believe that God would create billions of people and then, only if they answer a "trick question" correctly, pray the right prayer, live in the right country, say the right words, do they get to go to heaven. He says he would never consider believing in a God like that. He shows how in the book of Revelations it says that the gate to the eternal city (heaven) is always open. He believes that heaven will be on earth, (and there is ample evidence for this in the Bible), and he also believes that heaven and hell are, in many ways, right now. He has a great way of showing how time was thought of differently by the ancient Hebrews and how we have mistranslated and misconstructed many of the Scriptures into "then" and "now" and "later" when they are really very fluid. He unpackages a lot of the mystery of what is metaphorical and what was (then) contemporary culture in the Bible, and I guess that's open to interpretation but what I read made so much sense to me.

Bell has a lot of things to say about our responsibility to be loving and help to build heaven on earth. He does also believe that there will be a time when love will win on earth and that God will then say to those who persist in wickedness: Not here you don't. He thinks that there are lots of chances both in this life and later for people to decide whether they want to do good or not. He says people choose, now, daily, to live in hell and there's no reason to believe they wouldn't continue to choose an afterlife like that. But he is sure even they will have infinite opportunities to choose to change. People do change.

Bell says most churches don't succeed in evangelism because they don't actually like the arbitrary God they serve very much, so they don't really want to tell anybody about him.

The best part of the book is about Jesus. I was raised to think of Jesus in a very narrow context - he was a Jew, the saviour of the "chosen people" and if you were kinda lucky that might extend to some Gentiles too, but mostly there are "the lost" who will forever not know about him. I found myself most of my life being tired of Jesus and not thinking he was very interesting and in fact being kind of embarrassed to even say his name. Bell shows us a radical Jesus on a universal stage, representing every person who ever lived, and being a different "shape" in different cultures. He tells of missionaries who go to other cultures and tell the people about Jesus, and they say, "oh, we've been talking about him for a long time." Bell says some of us have so many bad connotations with the word Jesus that we can't be interested in the fabulous being he was. He takes a verse like "no one comes to the Father but by me [Jesus]," agrees with it, and then says that there are millions of different ways that could happen, not just one, as I was taught - namely that you have to "accept Jesus as your personal Saviour," a phrase that occurs nowhere in Scripture.

Bell believes (and quotes extensively from Scripture to show this) that there are lots and lots of different ways of being saved, again flying in the face of everything I was taught, but exactly coinciding with what I've secretly believed for years.

Throughout the book Bell refers to "making space" for alternative ways of looking at things, and encourages his readers to imagine the infinite love of God for each of us and to what lengths he would go to get us on the right track, loving each other, creating, and enjoying the world. And how absolutely unfeasible it is that God would give people just a blip of a chance to connect with a certain way of belief and getting saved and if you missed it - oops, goodbye forever. Suddenly God doesn't love you anymore because you had your chance and he sends you to hell. This has never made sense to me! Especially as a parent. Who would do that to a child they loved? And I'm sensing that soon I might be able to say with great joy, maybe even publicly: "I don't believe that any more."

June 26, 2011

The Iambics of Newfoundland by Robert Finch

This book is a warm and closely observed description of the author's visits to Newfoundland in the late 1980s and early 90s. Newfoundland (accent on the last syllable!) has intrigued me ever since Gayle was there to teach in the early 70s. Her book, The Glitter Storm: Letters from Northwest Brook, provide a lively picture of life in a Newfoundland fishing village. The Iambics of Newfoundland extends the same rich mixture of culture, language, landscape and people to many different parts of the province. It's an outstanding book, well reviewed by Time, the New York Times Book Review, and - the best recommendation of all - Annie Dillard.

Finch just writes beautifully. Here's an excerpt from his two-page chapter on jellyfish: "I saw the first one on Monday morning down off the Oldfords' wharf: a lion's mane with a reddish-brown umbrella perhaps six inches across, trailing a thick ring of long, pale angel-hair tentacles. It pulsed like a dark heart in the water, moving slowly but with seeming purpose among splintered piers, jagged shale ledges, frayed ropes and protruding spikes. How does such exposed fragility remain intact in such a ragged world?...then it moved off with a more than deliberate slowness through the clear waters, an expanding and contracting galaxy, a pulsing loop of plasmatoid fission, the swelling and shrinking foot of a moon snail without a shell, and on and on, into a deepening sea of simile...Yesterday afternoon I saw several more...When they move forward it is like a fist or a face softly pushing against a silken shroud."

It's hard not to copy the whole chapter, and Finch applies this keen eye and sensibility to the people he meets, his many friends around the province, the architecture and work of the outposts, the landscape and most particularly, the amazing cadence and vocabulary of the language. It is almost a language to itself so that when Finch talked to "the oldest man in Newfoundland" he needed a translator to understand what the old man was saying.

It's quite a long book with lots of detail but I read it carefully from beginning to end. Reading the book is probably the next best thing to going there - maybe better because I would tend to rush around. It would be great to have someone like Finch by your side, teaching you to really look.

June 6, 2011

So Long, Insecurity by Beth Moore

Beth Moore is well-known in Evangelical circles as a spiritual teacher and life coach to women. I became familiar with her through several of her video series. She's vibrant, passionate, smart and honest, making her an inspirational video series host. As a writer, she's much more scattered, but her personable and hilarious tone is still there, and if you stick with this book, you will learn a lot. At least I did.

Moore teaches how insecurity affects women, the causes of it, and how to become more secure. She's a relentless researcher, but says she found little out there already written about insecurity so she did some pretty extensive polling and questionnaires through her website, getting stories and ideas from many hundreds of women and even from 150 men. I found the chapters about men fascinating - in one she describes men's insecurities (yes, they have them, but they are mostly quite different from women's) and in another she discusses women's insecurities about men.

Because I'm in an anxious period of my life, I soaked up her ideas about how to deal with fear and anxiety. One of my favourite comments: "Our fears will never do us a single favor. If fright would somehow insulate us from specific outcomes, I'd say let's jump out from behind a door and scare ourselves half to death every morning for good measure." Beth Moore's common sense and spiritual wisdom gave me some good ideas about how to be less anxious and more secure. Now for the practise.

The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker

Simply absolutely the best book I've read in ages! It's a novel, I guess. A poet has put together an anthology of rhyming verse and his editor wants him to write a foreword for it. He has writer's block, so does everything else except write, carrying on a running commentary with the reader all the while about poetry. This book is so clever! Very, very funny and real. Newsweek said, "Baker writes like no one else in America" and I can believe it. I'm not sure if you didn't love poetry that you'd still like this book - it is really in depth about every poet under the sun and rhythm and rhyme and why poetry is written in the first place. But there's so much more. I will look for everything else that Nicholson Baker has written.

P.S. Later...I read somewhere after I finished this book that Nicholson Baker was known for erotica. This puzzled me - thought it must be a different author. So I picked out another of his books at the library the other day, scanned it and hastily put it back, blushing furiously. I guess I will NOT look for everything else he has written. The Anthologist is not the least like that!

The Accidental Buddhist

I wrote a long involved review of this book and then my blog swallowed it, so now I’m thinking that was probably for the best and I’ll just write whatever I remember about the book two weeks after finishing it, which is probably the important stuff anyway.

The book is by an American, Dinty Moore, who sets out to discover how Buddhism looks in its American incarnation and what it might mean for him. In visiting one Buddhist gathering after the other across the country, rather than the academic treatise he expected would result from his search, he learns instead some things that create positive change in his life. He gets happier and spends more time with his wife and child, and finds that the Buddhist ideas that appeal to him don’t conflict with the Christian tradition in which he was raised.

This latter is what was most interesting to me. In being so horrified at and afraid of all the Eastern religions, Christians miss out on a lot of good ideas. All the gods and rituals interest me not at all, but the ideas for a healthy mindset resonate with me and coincide with what I’ve been studying lately about the freedom of being a Christian.

Buddhists practise being in the present, quieting your mind, respecting all living things, and understanding that we are a part of all that’s around us. One of the most interesting teachings to me was one on preferences – ideally Buddhism says you shouldn’t have any, but just appreciate equally the things that are around you, that are set before you and that have been given to you. This attitude of acceptance and thankfulness is a far cry from the constant picking and choosing that is such an important part of my life, and in general of our consumerist culture. We want the best and if we don’t have it, we try harder and get dissatisfied and feel unlucky.

So I’ve been practising odd things, like chewing my food carefully and swallowing it before I take the next bite, getting my racing mind to settle down once in a while, and not being so picky about things.