Reading Heaven is for Real moved me. The simplicity of Colton Burpo’s faith in Jesus (and of his dad’s honest struggle) shines through on every page. It strikes me that imagination is a primary way that the Holy Spirit speaks to humankind, and I am grateful for it.
Though the picture that Colton presents is based on the Bible, there are things that he sees that clearly run through Western (and especially American) Christian lenses. For example, what would a Christian who believes in “soul sleep” (a view supported by much Scripture) make of this story? Or what about the claim that there are no elderly folks in heaven? Aboriginal Christians often picture heaven as the place where “everyone has white hair”–everyone is wise. The picture of everyone in their prime might say more about the overwhelming value of youth than the Bible’s teaching about heaven.
Social formation happens before we can even talk, and I think that this kind of formation happened in Colton’s case, too. This doesn’t mean that Colton’s experience is false, or that heaven is not real. But it does mean that we should hold all pictures of heaven loosely, because we don’t really understand–and as Pastor Todd admits, the Biblical pictures of heavenly realms are fragmentary.
I wish this picture of Heaven had been more connected to the Resurrection of the Dead. The book might leave the impression that the goal of the Christian life is to go to Heaven when we die. That’s part of the Biblical picture, but not the whole truth. I recommend NT Wright’s book Surprised by Hope as a beautiful and theologically robust supplement to a Christ-honouring story like this one.
This book was very hard for me to read, though I liked it. It is beautifully written: lyrical, well-organized, theologically robust, moving. My problem with the book, as anyone who knows me well might guess, is this: my brother Wesley Hill cannot allow himself to consider that someone like me, who affirms that same-gender relationships are part of God’s good plans for some of his people, can be a faithful Christian. (There is a single footnote in the introduction that points to a few scant resources–including an excellent essay by theologian Sylvia Keesmaat–but otherwise I’m not sure his rhetoric in this regard is generous.) I really wish this book had been two–one about the vocation to celibacy, and the other a much more fulsome statement about the author’s traditional position on the morality of sexual-romantic intimacy between queer Christians and people. I realize they may be rarer than people expect, but there are affirming queer Christians who are celibate. Opposition to homosexuality, for them, is not at all related to their vocation, and therefore the thread of agony that winds its way through Hill’s narrative will not speak to their situations.
One thing I appreciated without any reservations was Wesley’s emphasis on the bodily resurrection, something he reiterates consistently. And yet with my affirmation is a difference in conclusion:
Rather than refer to someone as “a homosexual,” I’ve taken care always to make “gay” or “homosexual” the adjective, and never the noun, in a longer phrase such as “gay Christian” or “homosexual person.” In this way, I hope to send a subtle linguistic signal that being gay isn’t the most important thing about my or any other gay person’s identity. I am a Christian before I am anything else. My homosexuality is part of my makeup, a facet of my personality. One day, I believe, whether in this life or in the resurrection, it will fade away. But my identity as a Christian–someone incorporated into Christ’s body by his Spirit–will remain. (Hill, p. 22).
On the contrary, I believe that my identity as a gay man will not disappear, but will be part of what informs my relationships even in the resurrection.
Perhaps I am picking a fight about word choice, but “part of my makeup, a facet of my personality” is both a typical conservative notion about sex and (from Hill’s own perspective, I think) a contradiction. I live with Cerebral Palsy, a neurological impairment and disability that I do not believe belongs to God’s good creation. Though it affects almost everything I do, it is not part of my makeup from the standpoint of the resurrection–God will remove it because it doesn’t belong to my true and full personhood. If Hill believes (as he clearly does) that all homosexual expression is sin, it might be more coherent for him to say that his same-sex attractions are not part of his true makeup.
Seeing the world as a queer person–for most of us, I expect–is much more complicated than simply being “a facet,” something with clear edges that fits into a much larger picture. For most queer people, our queerness is like a drop of dye in a glass of water–clearly not the most important thing, but something that probably will diffuse itself in different ways throughout. In my experience, people who describe their queerness as “a facet” have rarely stopped to examine the ways in which sexuality (which someone helpfully describes as “the drive to overcome our alone-ness”) impacts the way they live their day-to-day lives.
Hill regularly implies (perhaps because of his own convictions, but perhaps also because of the theological bias of Zondervan, his publisher) that Christians who affirm same-gender relationships as-or-analogous-to marriages are not being faithful to the Gospel. His book was published in 2010, before Evangelical books like Generous Spaciousness, Torn, or God and the Gay Christian were also available; yet, his biblical exegesis of the passages that buttress the traditional position is un-nuanced and unhelpfully summative (even given that his primary purpose was not to go merrily ’round the biblical mulberry bush one more time!). He left me with the impression that Christians who disagree with him have done no substantial theological work, and have in fact let pity and predominantly secular reasonings guide our decisions. I hope that Hill will be able at some point (perhaps in a later book or a revised edition) at least demonstrate more nuanced engagement with the theological work of queer-inclusive Christians (and especially those whom identify as Evangelicals).
I had a life-changing experience once while worshiping in a Pentecostal church I regularly attended in my early twenties. That night, I was feeling seriously distracted by all the beautiful men around me–and especially the worship leader, a tall, lanky man with tight blond curls, blue eyes, lovely arms (visible because he wore a sleeveless tee-shirt) and one of the most beautiful male voices I’d heard to that point in my life!
“Lord,” said I, “I’m trying to worship, here, not get distracted by beautiful men!”
It was the strangest thing, but I sensed the Holy Spirit laughing at me, quite affectionately. “So you think he’s beautiful?” she asked.
“Yeah, I really do!”
“Oh, good!” came the reply, and I swear I could hear the wicked-playful grin. “I do, too!”
I know that there are all kinds of reasons why skeptical people could tear my testimony to shreds. But in that moment, because I was recognizing his beauty and seeing him from what (surprise!) seemed to be the Holy Spirit’s perspective, my longing and recognition of his beauty became part of my worship rather than an ungodly distraction.
It seems clear to me that my brother Wesley cannot yet experience his attractions as part of how God might want him to appreciate human beauty, and it causes him deep agony. I wonder, though his writing about the traditional, sweeping perspective of the Church contains much truth and beauty, if he is causing himself deep and needless harm. I am sure that many Christians in Hill’s position will resonate deeply with much of what he says. I only wish that he could recognize much more fully that there are Evangelical Christians, like himself, who reach a different conclusion about homosexuality but nevertheless love Jesus and look forward in hope to the bodily resurrection, when all shall be made new, and when we all experience the joyful surprise of receiving our full humanity in Christ–even if we were deeply wrong about its shape and content on this side of the New Creation.
I have posted a short review of Randy Alcorn’s book on Goodreads. Though reading conservative Evangelical resources often makes me nervous, I found his tone very civil and his claims well-documented. A worthy and irenic discussion starter about the practice of abortion in American (and Canadian) society.
Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays, eds. Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011. 294 pages.
N.T. (Tom) Wright is one of the best known biblical theologians in the world, and one of the most prolific. With the deepest respect, I affectionately call him an “Evangelical-party pot-stirrer” in the Christian Church. (Well, actually the term I use is a little more earthy, but some readers find the smell of dung disturbing.) His scholarship is formidable and gracious, and he has a well-earned reputation for allowing fresh air into knotty problems of historical research and problems of faith in the contemporary world. Jesus, Paul and the People of God is the fruit of friendly-yet-critical interchange between Bishop Wright and some of this close academic friends: well-known names in Evangelical and Anglican circles like Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian J. Walsh, Richard B. Hays, and Kevin J. Vanhoozer. The symposium that gave rise to the published volume focuses on Jesus and the Victory of God, the second volume of Wright’s Christian Origins and the Question of God.
The book itself is divided into two sections, one on the historical Jesus and the other on the historical Paul. Each of Wright’s interlocutors offers a paper on an aspect of his work, followed by his brief appreciation and response to any issues that were raised in the main essay. An extended essay from Wright ends each section, giving an excellent summary of his work in that area and what many of the implications might be for good preaching and Christian formation.
Far be it from me to even attempt a meagre summary of such rich material, but I’d like to point out a few things that I’ve found personally interesting. First, Wright’s writing is beautiful, rhetorically forceful, and moving. I wish, in the words of my friend, theologian Christopher RJ Holmes, that I “had one-fifth Wright’s erudition.”
Second, he is generally very humble, but he also believes he’s correct in dismissing large portions of the Church’s tradition, which have, on his account, cut the nerve of what Jesus, Paul, and the Scriptures have been saying all along. Edith Humphrey and a few others in the collection tease him about “being a good Protestant,” something which Wright doesn’t seem to mind. He clearly believes that he is right, and is prepared to answer against all comers, because he believes that the Bible–which is always more important than the tradition–must be the final arbiter of the Church’s life. He wants to be faithful to the large metanarrative of the Bible, and doesn’t seem to mind being a lone voice in Evangelical circles if that’s what it takes. I often feel very similarly about issues around ethics and sexuality in the Christian tradition–but I think many conservatives hear me as a “modern ego,” more like the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost than a faithful prophetic voice. It is difficult to determine the difference objectively, especially when a voice like Wright’s, or mine, insists that it intends faithfulness to Jesus and the person’s life seems to bear good fruit, overall.
Third, the essays of Richard B. Hays and Kevin J. Vanhoozer offer substantial challenges to Wright’s theological programme. Hays argues against Wright’s strong dislike of Karl Barth, especially since Barth, for him, cuts the nerve for historical Jesus research. Hays wants to suggest that his own approach to Jesus research and Wright’s are fundamentally compatible–in part because Wright is closer to Barth than it may first appear. Vanhoozer suggests that Reformed perspectives on Paul are not fundamentally wrong, as Wright believes, but rather Reformed work and Wright’s can mutually inform each other, especially about such central theological concepts as righteousness, justification, and salvation. I appreciate these essays precisely because I always feel suspicious about rigid demarcation of views that usually stands on stereotype: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” If Wright’s researches and Reformed theology can dance together, it seems to me, the Church will only benefit.
Readers who haven’t read much of Wright but want a good summary of his research and his friendly critics would do well to pick up this volume. It is a rare thing to read an academic book so full of joy in the Gospel and love of Christ, where even sharp disagreement can be managed because we are all in the service of the One who demonstrates the victory of God over sin, death, and destruction: even Jesus Christ, the first century Jewish boy who saves the cosmos.