Wednesday, August 30, 2017

A Tale of Four Books

For much of the month of August I seem to have been travelling. Some seventy hours of travel time between Calgary-Toronto-Ethiopia-Zambia and back again. And then there were the hours spent on the bus (in the photo to the right), going from destination to destination in Zambia while exploring Kitwe, Ndola, Luanshya, Chingola, Lusaka and Livingstone. I had time to read. A lot of time.

I carefully chose four books to take with me. The main factor in deciding which books I packed in my bags was this – did I want to have a copy of the book at home with me once I was finished reading it? I simply did not want to carry books all the way to Zambia and then lug them home at the end of the three weeks. It wasn’t so much a judgement on the author but more of an anticipation that I likely would not be referring to the book once I was finished reading it.

I took along a notebook with me and made some limited notes. Or took photos with my phone when the pot-holey roads of the Copperbelt province in northern Zambia did not allow for any sort of legible note-taking. I left one book on a plane cause that is where it really deserved to end up. Another I gave to a faculty member of the United Church of Zambia (UCZ) University because I thought he might be one of the only Zambians who might be willing to read the book. The third book I gave to the theological student who did all of the bus driving for our group cause I figured he would find the theology somewhat affirming of his beliefs. And the fourth book I brought home because I just could not finish it in time to give it away nor did it deserve to be left on a plane.

I started and finished The Purpose Driven Church by Rick Warren on the plane from Toronto to Ethiopia. Warren is the pastor who started the evangelical mega-church, Saddleback, in California. He clearly has a touch for attracting people to his church—so much so that Saddleback now has 20,000 attendees over 13 campuses. I really did not enjoy this book. It was not so much that I disagreed with his suggestions or methodology for growing the church but it was more that I didn’t appreciate how it seemed that the markers of success for his church focused on the individual rather than the differences for good that the church has made in the community and in the world. Obviously, he and his church have made a difference in many people lives but it felt odd to read a book so obviously focused on growth in regards to numbers rather than the growth of all the possible ministries. I left his book on the plane.

I read the next book, With or Without God, with an interest as to what is happening in the United Church of Canada this fall. The author of this book, the United Church minister Greta Vosper, is in dispute with the wider church regarding her belief—or rather, disbelief—in God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit. When a minister is ordained or commissioned by the church, they must declare that they believe in God, the Son and the Holy Spirit. There are leaders in the church that insist that if she no longer ascribes to this belief, she should no longer be a minister with the church. Vosper’s book, published in 2008, makes it clear that she does not believe that any of the above exists in our world. She also makes it clear that whether or not God actually does it exist, there is still a very real requirement of humanity to live in loving relationship with others in our world—which is part of her justification that she can continue to fulfill the role of minster within the church. Vosper’s theology would be an absolutely foreign concept to most faithful Zambians for their God is a very much a god that not only very much exists but is also in control of the activities of our world. I gave With or Without God to my minister friend who teaches at UCZ University and, during our time there, was open to exploring expansive views on God and God’s work in and amongst humanity. I’m not certain he will overly appreciate Vosper’s writing but I was not really interested in bringing back the heavy hardcover book. I took lots of photos of the paragraphs on which I wanted to make notes—a much lighter way of referencing her work.

Follow Me to Freedom: Leading and Following as a Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne and John Perkins had all the talk of the positive impact that the various ministries of certain Jesus-followers have had on the surrounding communities that I was missing from Rick Warren’s book. This book gave many examples of how different leadership styles impact the effectiveness of ministry of God’s people in the world. Both Claiborne and Perkins are not only amazing leaders of their own communities, they are also people who empower others to be amazing leaders themselves. While I have some serious points of contention with the theology of these authors, I do understand that together we have a basic and fundamental belief in God and God’s call for a just and loving world. As such, I found myself much more willing to learn about growth of the church from these authors than I did from Warren’s book. I gave this book to a new friend whose theological beliefs run much the way of these two authors.

Finally, I just finished reading Lillian Daniel’s book, When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church. Daniel has been lauded and criticized for this book. On one hand, she reminds us that the church is to be a community of people who are to worship and do God’s work as a people who are interdependent on one another rather than as a series of individuals. And, on the other, in this writing and speaking against those who prefer to seek God on their own rather than within a bureaucratic, hierarchical religious system, Daniel seems to diminish and exclude the very people which churches, such as SVUC, are reaching out to welcome in when they are ready to try church once again. I’m glad that I ended up bringing this one home—I enjoy Daniel’s writing style.

I find it fascinating that I managed to pick books that had somewhat opposing views. I certainly did not do this intentionally but it was a happy coincidence. Or it was the Holy Spirit moving. Vosper vs Daniel. I choose the Holy Spirit.