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Friday, December 28, 2012

book response: Letters from a skeptic by Greg Boyd (2010)

I picked this up for my Kindle when it was free for a day. It's only two bucks and change now, and this book is worth so much more. It is so much better to read apologetics from a correspondence between an honest skeptic and a humble apologist. This is narrative instead of academic. Boyd knows a great deal, he studied theology at Princeton and Yale, but he is not ashamed to admit what he doesn't know, his own struggles with doubt, his own mistakes in faith, or the limits of what can be claimed on behalf of Jesus and the Bible. Boyd is not a fundamentalist which enables him to write about Jesus much more winsomely and not as a hard dogmatist. He acknowledges the diversity within Christendom, and explains why he makes the choices within it without condemning those who have chosen otherwise. He also talks about the fringe groups and what makes them fringy. In fact, he started his Christian journey in one of them, oneness pentecostalism. He wants his skeptical dad to know that he will defend Jesus, but not the church as institution.
But the “religion” of Christianity, the “institution” of the church, is not itself Christian. Only people, not institutions, can be Christian. Thus, I want to sharply distinguish between the Christianity I’m defending and the “Christian church”: The two need not have anything more than a name in common. I wouldn’t dream of trying to defend all that’s been done under the label “Christianity.” Like you, I am enraged by a great deal of it. p.26

He makes an admirable attempt at understanding the problem of evil. He comes down on the side of it's the risk that came with God choosing to give us freedom in order that we might love freely. "If we have the potential to oppress or slay millions, it’s because we also have the potential to liberate and love millions." p. 34 But why did God take such a risk? Because God is love. "Love is really the only reason worth creating! It’s not freedom for the sake of freedom that God values—it’s love. Freedom is simply the only possible means to this end." p.34 He also says that the natural evil is the fault of spiritual forces who are committed to destruction.
I would never for a moment pretend to understand exactly how these demonic forces screw around with nature—the Bible is completely silent on this score. But it is my deepest conviction that all evil which can’t be accounted for by appealing to the necessary limitations of the world or the evil wills of people is due to the will of such beings as these. In the end, we are all more or less casualties of war. p. 46
One can never arrive at this conclusion without an acceptance of a spiritual, non-physical world, something easily understandable to most non-westerners. The good news is that evil will be completely vanquished in the future. The deposit on it's guaranteed end started at Christmas 2000 years ago.
Only the gospel dares to proclaim that God enters smack-dab into the middle of the hell we create. Only the gospel dares to proclaim that God was born a baby in a bloody, crap-filled stable, that He lived a life befriending the prostitutes and lepers no one else would befriend, and that He suffered, firsthand, the hellish depth of all that is nightmarish in human existence. Only the gospel portrait of God makes sense of the contradictory fact that the world is at once so beautiful and so ugly. p. 77
I love that last sentence. Most importantly, Boyd keeps pointing to Jesus. He saves us, not his book, or his church. "Salvation is a matter of being related to Christ, not the Bible. In fact, believing the Bible to be inspired is, for me, simply a consequence (not the basis) of confessing Christ to be the Lord of my life." p. 114 That Jesus' resurrection is unique, does not mean it is necessarily false, but something new. "Jesus is, if you will, the first butterfly to come out of the cocoon. It seems implausible to us now only because we are yet entrapped inside our cocoons. But caterpillars are meant to fly!" p. 132 This is our hope. His resurrection proved he is worth listening to and believing in. "The bottom line is this: The evidence for the resurrection and the deity of Christ stands or falls together, and there is simply no legitimate rational basis to the notion that the conclusion this evidence points to is inherently impossible." p.140

The resurrection is not enough for many people. Some of my friends, like Boyd's father, would appreciate personal text messages, perhaps in clouds in the sky, to firm things up for them. This is the issue of the hiddenness of God. Boyd points out that God did that over and over again in the First Testament, and Jesus did it over and over again in the Second Testament, and still people refused to believe, or if they did, transform their lives.
So God settles on a “middle-of-the-road” program. He is present enough so that those who want to experience Him can experience Him, but absent enough so that those who don’t want to experience Him aren’t forced to—and they’re actually in a sense justified in their complaint over God’s absence! God is obvious enough so that those who want to see Him can see Him, but hidden enough so that those who don’t want to see Him can avoid Him—and be in a sense justified in their complaint about His secrecy. Love requires both evidence and hiddenness. p.151
God is open to those who are open and closed to those who are closed. Boyd continually challenges his father to risk being open.

I don't want to ruin the ending, but it is beautiful. After nearly two and a half years of correspondence, Boyd's father consents to be loved by Jesus, then his body starts to fall apart. It's almost a certainty that when one decides to trust Jesus, the feces hits the fan in their lives. For some, it ruins their faith, but it doesn't for all, and it didn't for his father. He remained a grateful and content man through three ever more debilitating strokes until he passed away.
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