Book Review: “The Five Times I Met Myself” by James L. Rubart

I’ve never reviewed a fiction book on this site before, but I recently received and read a review copy of the new novel, The Five Times I Met Myself, by James L. Rubart. The book is a fairly compelling story about a man, with regrets about his relationship with his dad, a bad relationship with his brother, and a failing marriage, who is given the chance to go back and give advice to himself as a younger person.The-Five-Times-I-Met-Myself

I mainly read non-fiction books. Perhaps this is the reason why I find myself somewhat of a snob when it comes to fiction literature – I only read a handful each year and I expect it to take me into another world, one where I am so engrossed in the narrative and characters that I am saddened when it is over. Unfortunately, Rubart’s latest book did not accomplish that for me.

If you’re looking for a decently interesting story that will keep the pages turning, The Five Times I Met Myself, might be worth your time. However, I found the narrative and characters both underdeveloped and unnecessarily complicated. The book spends the majority of the time taking the reader through a time-traveling experience fueled by the art of lucid dreaming. While there were interesting moments in the story, I couldn’t help but think of the grandfather paradox the entire time. I was also never sure what the heart of the book was – the main characters relationship with his father, brother, business, or wife. The real let-down comes at the end where apparently none of it really mattered as it was all a trap-door into an altar call for a pseudo-stoicism version of Christianity. The book was best when it explored the concept of how small decisions in life have the ability to affect your future. The book was laborious when endless plot-lines where added, each more unlikely or pointless than the previous. The book was worst when it felt like a gimmick for an evangelistic presentation.

This is actually the first book review I’ve published where I haven’t been super impressed. But, as the note at the end of each book review blog states, I received a free copy of the book by Thomas Nelson in exchange for my honest review.

Video: John Barclay on Paul and Grace (Gupta)

Mike Skinner:

Great little summary of what sounds like a remarkable book. Itching to start reading it!

Originally posted on Crux Sola:

If you missed the great SBL review session on John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift (or even if you were there), and if you haven’t read his new book, here is a nice, short summary of some key thoughts on grace in Paul’s thought.

View original

All is Gift (Theology for Thanksgiving)

“Where did you come from?”

This basic, almost childish, question of ontology is perhaps the basis of all right thinking about our lives. For Augustine, in his classical work Confessions, it grounds his ability to understand his life as completely and fully dependent on God.* We did not create our own lives. Our existence, and all of the different parts of that existence, are complete gifts from God.

This is a truth made clearer when one is in relationship with someone will special needs such as autism or down syndrome. I made no choice, and exerted no effort, in order to be given the physiological or biological abilities to walk, talk, think, speak, create, work, or relate to others. Accordingly, I didn’t choose my gender or my ethnicity. I didn’t choose my family or my location of origin. Upon reflection, I could have just as easily been born to a teenager in Syria who is now a refugee as to a well-to-do American family in a suburb who discusses the plight of refugees. I could have just as easily been born without the ability to think critically or communicate effectively.

Everything in my life, at the end of the day, is a gift.

It is only when I come to grips with this fact that I am able to live as a creature and express the most basic, yet most satisfying, instinct of a creature: thanksgiving. 

I offer to you, then, two poets’ reflections on the creatureliness of life and the inherent gift of gratitude that flows from it:

What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put ignorance into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in his toil – this is God’s gift to man.” – Solomon, King of Israel [Ecclesiastes 3:9-13]

The colors of a sunrise,
a morning suprise,
the love you find in another’s eyes.
The hand that helps you up, when you’ve fallen down;
All is gift, my friend, all is gift from a loving God.

The changing of the seasons, life is born anew.
Laughter and smiles and birds that sing;
that hope that we cling to when the darkness comes;
All is gift, my friend, all is gift from a loving God.

Memories of a yesterday, tears that flow,
broken dreams, broken hearts we learn to grow.
A God who will let us know we’re not alone,
we’re not alone.
All is gift, my friend, all is gift from a loving God.

Hearts that unite, a friendship born,
in sacred earth seeds are sown and we are fed.
Hands unafraid to reach and souls that touch;
All is gift, my friend, all is gift from a loving God.
Kathy Sherman

  • Stanley Hauerwas, commenting on Augustine’s thought: “That we are dependent beings is self-evident if we acknowledge as we should that we cannot remember our birth. Augustine, like Wittgenstein, emphasizes the significance of birth as a definitive human experience that makes impossible our temptation to ignore the fact we are bodily creatures. Our bodily character makes us mysteries to ourselves inviting us to ask the childish question, “Where did I come from?” It is Augustine’s willingness to risk appearing childish by probing the ontological implications of that question that Rees argues makes the account of his life in the Confessions so compelling.”


A Wold of Terror Needs the Longer Ending of Mark

This past Sunday I was asked to preach the last section in the Gospel of Mark. Mike then asked if I would write a blog post that would serve as a response to his earlier post on the original ending, which stops at verse eight.

See Post Here

Mike and I are in agreement about one thing, verses 9–20 are most certainly not original to the Gospel of Mark. The question that I hope to answer in this post is this:

Do these verses, nonetheless, have something to say to our terror filled world?

My humble answer to that question is yes, or more specifically, we need both endings and we need their differences pushed together side by side.

As I was researching for my sermon I was only able to find one blog post that had anything positive to say about this text: See post

Everything else I found either defended the text’s originality or advised the readers to ignore this section altogether. Since it is not part of the original gospel why bother stirring things up for your congregation. Better to leave it where it ends, nice and neat.

Both of these approaches in my opinion are problematic. Even if virtually everyone agrees that it is not part of the original gospel,  this does not mean that it is not scripture or that it does not have anything for us today.

This longer ending was not the only addition to the Gospel of Mark. There was a shorter ending that was also added after verse 8. This addition however did not stand the test of time. For some reason this longer ending that we now have in Mark was very popular with the church and so it was kept. This alone should give us pause and make us more willing to receive what this text would say to us.

So what can we learn in this longer ending of Mark? Why did the church keep it preserved for us?

In this addition, unlike the original ending of Mark, we have the record of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances. Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene. She is the first apostle. Though she is female the later scribe did not airbrush her out. It is important that Jesus chose to appear first to his female disciples. Here, ever so subtly, we see a subversive element of the gospel. The privilege of being the first witness is given to the ones whom at the time are seen as unprivileged. Centuries later the church has not lost this edge. It keeps this shocking detail in full focus.

The disciples refuse to believe Mary, which remains consistent with the other gospel narratives. Jesus then appears to two followers who again are not part of the original eleven. And again the disciples refuse to believe. Lastly, Jesus appears to his disciples and rebukes them for their hardness of heart and unbelief.  He then commands them to go into all creation. The anonymous author has upped the ante here and made the Great Commission even more universal in nature.

Jesus promises that signs will accompany their ministry and aid in their mission. This includes that weird bit about being able to pick up snakes and drink poison without being harmed. This is not a command as some denominations have taken it to mean, nor is it a test of a person’s faith or commitment. All the signs that Jesus gives indicate that his kingdom has indeed come and evil has been defeated.

The church believes that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection served as an apocalyptic event. It was the end of a certain world order–the reign of sin, death, evil, sickness, and oppression. The powers of the world have been defeated in an unlikely way, through the sacrificial love of it’s own Creator. The tide has unquestionably been turned, the decisive battle has been fought and won. This is the message the Church carries and must carry to a world that either has not yet heard or refuses to hear this good news.

If there is no longer version of Mark, this message remains hidden. The world is left to its fear and doubt and hardness of heart.

N.T. Wright in Simply Christian likens salvation to waking up to the reality of God. (1) The hope of the Christian message is that the world of pain, terror, and suffering is not the truest form of reality. Christians speak with bold faith that the evil which seems victorious is deceptive. For we believe that evil is a defeated enemy, that it will not have the final word, that good triumphs over evil and love ultimately wins. It sounds naïve, arrogant, and possible insensitive in light of our terror filled world. What Christians must do is live in the uncomfortable tension of claiming victory while we still experience suffering. We can understand that tension only by looking at our cruciform God and victory through the lens of loss, pain, and sacrifice. We cannot agree with the world that evil has won. If we do, we run the risk of being like the children in Narnia whom the White Witch convinces that there is no sun.

The last part of the section ends with the disciples preaching, Jesus ascending to the right hand of God, and promising to work with us. This beautiful addition to Mark gives us one last piece of hope as we continue to live in a world of terror….We do not work alone. Jesus is Immanuel, the one who is with us. We do not derive our energy from our own power but are filled and equipped by his Spirit. This last statement also means there is still much work to do. As the church, while we mourn with those who have endured unspeakable pain, we cannot simply grieve at a distance. We, like the disciples, share the commission to preach this radical good news.  For it is at the heart of suffering that the church must always be.  For the heart and mission of the church mirrors the heart and cruciform mission of Jesus. In this longer addition to Mark, we find comfort in the one who shares our sorrow, works with us, and seeks to redeem our deepest darkness through sacrificial love.

  1. Wright, N.T.,  Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense (New York: HarperCollins Publishers), 2006.

Ascension: The Locus of Atonement in Hebrews

David Moffitt made his mark on the world of biblical studies with his impressive dissertation Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews.” In it, he argues against the long-standing viewpoint that Jesus’ resurrection plays little role in the soteriology of the book of Hebrews. Most modern scholars have seen the crucifixion, through the lens of a sacrificial typology, as the primary place and moment of Jesus’ atoning work. Moffitt largely builds on the work of Old Testament scholars who have proven that 1) the atonement accomplished by blood offerings like Yom Kippur were not focused on the actual slaughter of the animal but on the presentation/sprinkling of the blood and that 2) the blood represents the life of the sacrifice and not its death. Thus, using a typology of Yom Kippur, Jesus’ sacrifice triggers a series of events that leads to atonement, but is itself not sufficient or primary in the accomplishment of atonement. Moffitt uses these conclusions to argue for the primacy and importance of the resurrection in the book of Hebrews (see a good summary and review here).

While I think Moffitt is largely on the right track and much of his exegetical work on Hebrews is incredibly important, I can’t help but wonder if there is a glaring flaw in his conclusion. That is, Jesus’ bodily resurrection does not guarantee or accomplish atonement (in Hebrews itself or in Moffitt’s reading of Hebrews). It is the ascension of the bodily resurrected Christ into Heaven which does this – as he presents his blood in the actual Holy of Holies. A post-crucifixion embodied life is certainly necessary for this, but is itself just an event in the process which leads to the atonement. A resurrected Jesus, still walking around on earth, has not truly accomplished atonement according to the typology utilized in the book of Hebrews. At many points, Moffitt seems to recognize and appreciate this, yet it never seems to make a big enough impression to truly shape his conclusion.

I preached a sermon series last year on the doctrine of the Ascension, a doctrine that is mind-bogglingly  overlooked by many churches and theologians. Western churches and theologians usually tack the Ascension on as an afterthought to the Resurrection (at best), without giving thought to the specific theological work that it accomplishes and continues to accomplish in the theo-drama of God’s redemptive plan through Christ and the Spirit.  As I studied and prepared for the series, I realized how little I knew about the biblical and theological significance of the Ascension and, even more sadly, how little significant scholarship has been written about it.

However, Hebrews stands out among all of our canonical literature as exalting the Ascension as the praiseworthy and effectual moment of atonement. In fact, the data made me go back and listen to a sermon series I preached through the book of Hebrews years before and, to my embarrassment, I practically overlooked (or downplayed) the endless references to the Ascension. Like the scholars Moffitt critiques, my attention was so focused on the crucifixion (largely because of a poor understanding of the levitical sacrificial system) that I could hardly muster the cognitive or theological energy to look anywhere else.

Now, however, not only do I see the importance of the resurrection in the book of Hebrews – I also see the locus of atonement as happening in heaven at the time of the ascension. Why do we give so little attention to the  ascension as opposed to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus? Maybe because it is more theological and metaphysical? Maybe because we’ve overlooked its importance in the Scriptures? Regardless, I can no longer deny this truth: THE ASCENSION MATTERS. While the incarnation, life and ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus are all vitally important to God’s work of salvation and to our faith – the ascension must be understood as equally important and praiseworthy.

What do you think?

Have you noticed a tendency in churches or theology to overlook or downplay the importance of Jesus’ ascension?
If so, why do you think that is?

Do you agree that perhaps there is more biblical and theological weight put on the work of Jesus’ ascension than is often recognized?

Where else, other than Hebrews, might we be downplaying the importance of the ascension in the canonical literature?