The Bookshelf: Escape Routes

Christianity provides an extensive theological framework for a variety of important topics. Perhaps the most important subject it gives a lens to is that of human suffering. The Christian faith centers itself around the suffering act of God, experienced in the person of Jesus Christ. The Suffering Servant is a widely popular image of Christ, and the stories of the martyrs feature prominently in church tradition.

In this light, Johann Christoph Arnold’s little book, Escape Routes: For People Who Feel Trapper in Life’s Little Hells, is a vitally important read on how to apply real-life theological understandings to the suffering nature of human existence.

Any regular reader here knows I am not a fan of the “self help” model of religion that 21st century American Christianity so often falls into. Yet, over the past month, I have begun to become intensely interested in a “theology of suffering,” chiefly as a result of reading Moltmann’s The Crucified God. While I certainly don’t want to narrow the life and message of Jesus down to a simple how-to guide of dealing with the hard parts of life, I do think the faith, at it’s core, should be oriented towards better lives for all human being. And a crucial part of that work is addressing and putting into perspective the suffering every person experiences in their lives.

Arnold, through the use of stories about people’s life’s, addresses the various aspects of suffering. Running through lonlieness, despair, difficult pasts, the struggle of success, and (interestingly) sex, he shows the universality of suffering in the human experience, and thus is able to effectively address the loneliness someone struggling though any of these areas surely feels. This arc culminates in the highlight of the book, Chapter 7, entitled, simply, “Suffering.” Arnold tells several stories again, culminating in the life of Bishop Oscar Romero.

The book ends on more positive notes. One of the most noteworthy, and surprising, moments of the book, is in the chapter entitled “Travel Guides.” Arnold illustrates the lives of three people who endured much suffering, and yet persisted, carrying through to significant and lasting impacts on the world. Surprisingly, one of the people he highlights at this point is Che Guevara, the Communist revolutionary who fought in Cuba and Angola. 

To encounter words of praise towards the leftist icon from someone within traditional Christianity is, well, rare, to say the least. And Arnold certainly doesn’t gloss over the most unsavory aspects of Guevara’s life and legacy. But crucially, he is able to draw out Guevara’s love for the regular people of Latin America, a love that drove him to fight against oppression and imperialism around the globe.  As a young left-leaning person, I obviously grew up around images of Che. I have always been intrigued by the man and the passion he exemplified, but was troubled, as a pacifist, by the violent methods he employed at times. Arnold, in this section of the book, is able to put my mind at ease.

He does all this in service to his broader goal, of normalizing the act of suffering and reassuring those who suffer that they aren’t alone, that even great men and women in history suffered greatly on their way to the things they did in the world. I found this little book an easy and enlightening read. Indeed, as Arnold shows, suffering is a key component to the Christian experience. For every Prosperity Gospel success story of big houses and helicopters, there are a thousand suffering campesinos, toiling everyday for pennies. Their experience is the dominant experience of the Christian movement. Their lives provide the primary paradigm for understanding Christian theology. And it is their suffering that Jesus took on and identified with, and called us all to recognize. The Suffering Servant isn’t an unobtainable ideal; the Suffering Servant is each of us.

As always with the books I receive from Plough, I of course was bothered by the allusions to traditional views on sexuality and reproductive issues, but they are few and far between here. Escape Routes is a lovely little book, and can be a highly useful resource for those enduring suffering (that is to say, all of us), and those who are called to be shepherds to those who suffer.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Plough Publishers. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

The Bookshelf: How To Be Here

Yesterday, I wrote about attending Rob Bell’s How To Be Here Experience tour stop here in Tulsa on Saturday. Today, I want to take a look at the book he is promoting.

After getting the tickets for the Saturday show from Ari late on Friday afternoon, I rushed out to Barnes and Noble and bought a copy of How To Be Here. I figured, if I am going to the show, I better read the book. And so, I did. I started it at about 6:30 Friday evening. I finished it at 6:30 Saturday morning. This is a pattern for me and Rob Bell books. (I’m really glad he said his next book is measurably longer; it will be nice to spend some time with his work.)

IMG_20160617_181306So, let’s get out of the way what How To Be Here isn’t. It is not a book about Christianity. It is not Biblical scholarship. It’s not theology. It’s not “Christian Living” (which is the heading it is shelved under at B&N.) So if you go into reading it expecting or hoping for any of those things, then you are going to be disappointed.

In the same vein, let’s get out of the way some things that Rob Bell isn’t, as well. Rob Bell is not a church pastor anymore. (Although I would still call him a pastor, albeit in a different way. He said the same in his talk.) He is not an evangelical Christian. He is not a theologian, or a Biblical scholar.

What is he? Well, I don’t want to speak for him too much. But I would say, he is a pastor in a wider sense, to a church, as he described it, without walls or a building. Instead, the church he leads is, in his words, “a group of people…….” He still guides people pastorally; he described that as a motivator for the more intimate nature of this tour, his hope to be able to interact with and hear from actual people, rather than lecturing from a stage. Theologically/philosophically, he is a universalist Christian. He still references the Bible often, both in the book and his talk, and he continues to describe his chief adherence to the Way of Christ.

And so, this book is a commentary on how to live in the world. It is a book that speaks about being yourself more fully. I hesitate to label it self-help, due to the baggage that comes with that term, but if you can think of the most generous categorization of that term, then you could call it self-help. The blurb describes it as a combination of “Spiritual wisdom with practical life advice.” I think that’s pretty accurate.

So, lets talk about this book. The premise is summed up pretty well in the title: Rob wants you to be here, present in this moment, in this life, in this world, in this place and time and context. We can spend a lot of time worrying about the future, and feeling guilty about the past, and those things can prevent us from experiencing life, from loving forward and fulfilling our potential and transcending  what we think we are and are capable of.

The book is split into 9 sections, each expounding on a practice geared towards maximizing your potential and experiencing life fully. It builds, starting with “The Blinking Line,” referring to the cursor in a Word document that blinks at you, waiting for you to type something into existence, seemingly pregnant with possibility and subtly mocking you, all at the same time. It moves from there to the blank page that is the future, ready to be filled, by finding your ikigai, or calling, by developing your craft, by tackling life one thing at a time, but being willing to take big risks, by being humble enough to work your way up from the bottom if necessary, and by taking everyday as a gift, culminating in a call to living fully present in this moment, unafraid, unworried, ready for whatever comes your way, optimistic and hopeful and gracious.

Like all of Rob’s books, it is full of wit and humor and short, catchy sentences and gripping stories and illustrations. He makes short reference to the Bible in several places (reminding readers at one point that he was, after all, once a pastor.)

The whole book is captivating and powerful. The arc of argument is inspiring, and for me, much needed and well timed. Specifically, his section on taking life one thing at a time really grabbed me. Rob calls it “finding your 1.”

I’ll let him set this up:

That’s where you start. With 1.

It’s too overwhelming otherwise. It’s too easy to be caught up in endless ruminations: What if Step 4 doesn’t work? or What if there isn’t money for Step 11 or What if people don’t like the results of Step 6?

You have no idea what the answers are the any of those questions. The only thing that wondering and speculating will do is seperate you from the present moment.

When you begin, the seventeenth step is sixteen steps away. You don’t have to know how to do it, or what it is, or even when it is.

Because the first number is always 1.

Not focusing on the 1 is a huge problem for me. I am all too often thinking far out into the future, planning and stressing and unsure of how I am going to bring all this together or do that thing or figure that out.

But what this section of the book instilled in me is, I don’t need to worry about that stuff right now. It’s not in front of me now. There are plenty of problems right here to solve, and then when you solve the first one, you move to the next. As Rob’s friend Eddie says in the book, “Stop thinking about shit that ain’t happenin’.”

Another good way to think about this is from the great movie The Martian(It’s a movie about outer space. Or course I think it’s great.) At the end of the movie, Matt Damon’s character Mark Watney is speaking to a class of future astronauts of the first day of class. He tells them, “You just do the math. You solve one problem, then you solve the next.”

You just do the math. You stop worrying about shit that ain’t happen’.

When it comes to writing, I am all to often way out in front of myself. What’s the next thing I’m gonna write? How do I follow this up? How am I gonna fill an entire page/post/book etc? And those questions paralyze me, and prevent me from sitting down and just writing what I know and what I have right now.

So now, I find my 1. What is that topic on my head today? What is that thought bouncing around? Write it down. It doesn’t have to be 1000 words or whatever. Just write down. More will come. Share it with the world when it seems right. And don’t worry about what comes next. Find your 1.

This extends to all areas of life for me. Work, home, family, leisure. I have problems to work today. Yes, we will plan and strategize and brainstorm and dream. But ultimately, we will work those problems when they get here. For now, we do 1.

Rob opened all that up for me in this book. Just that alone is big. But combined with everything else, I would highly recommend How to Be Here to you all.

Ok, so I said earlier, this is not a religious book. It’s not a book about Christianity. And that’s true. But I think there is a deeper spiritual point Rob is making, because, as he would tell us, everything is spiritual.

We have to be here, be present in this time and place and world, but that is where God is. God isn’t out in some cosmos. God isn’t beyond this plane. God isn’t out of this world. God is here, now, with us, in this world. But we miss God constantly, because we are constantly moving, and rushing, and worrying about the future, and not paying attention. God is here, and to experience God, we need to slow down and see God where God is. God is in people. God is in nature. God is in the little things that happen everyday that blow you away, or that you can’t explain.

And that’s Rob’s underlying point: be here, because God is here.

The Bookshelf: “Called to Community”

Intentional Christian community is a way of living that my wife and I have been interested almost as long as we have known each other. Some of our earliest experiences together were attending a talk by Shane Claiborne, one of the leaders of the New Monasticism movement, and visiting Dr. Elaine Heath’s New Spring Communities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area for three days.

As a result of these experiences, and through reading and study, we’ve always had a goal of participating in intentional, missional Christian community. During our time in Tulsa, this goal has come closer and closer, as we have gotten involved with those pursuing the same here. Recently, we have begun looking at places to live in Turley, an unincorporated town just north of Tulsa that is hit hard by poverty and blight, and where the Third Way Foundation, led by UU Rev. Ron Robinson, has begun this missional model. Intentional living is finally within reach for us, the culmination of almost seven years of searching and discerning and hoping.

So receiving the latest book from Plough Publishing in the mail a few weeks ago was an unexpected, much appreciated surprise. Called to Community: The Life Jesus Wants for His People is a compliation of essays from a variety of Christian figures across the centuries. Divided into 52 chapters focused on specific topics (for instance, “Vocation”, “Transparency”, or “Money”), the book is designed for communal reading weekly for a year.calledtocommunityEN

Obviously, I didn’t go the weekly route; I read it straight through. In doing so, I came to understand that reading it slowly, topic by topic, is what I really would suggest; there is not a narrative theme, so it can start to bog down in a straight read, especially if you are running through chapters that don’t speak to you.

That said, I found Called to Community a great resource, one I intend to keep close at hand as we move into intentional community. The variety of voices represented here (ranging from Dorothy Day to John Perkins to Dietrich Bonhoeffer to Thomas Merton), writing from experience on the things any Christian community will run into are invaluable. So many new ideas and questions came to me as I read and contemplated our move.

If you are involved in a missional community, or if you are contemplating it, or if you just want to know how to maximize the sense of community in your local congregation or prayer group, Called to Community can be a priceless, and much used, resource on your shelf. Not necessarily as a single read, but as a collection you can call upon in a variety of situations as you navigate life with others. Give it a read.