A Heretic's Guide to Eternity: Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor
I was sent this book by the publishers, and avoided blogging on it, mainly because I usually only review books I find helpful, and I wondered what purpose reviewing is unfavorably would serve. Then I read this post on Tony Jones blog, about whether Emergent was moving beyond the orthodox, and that got me thinking about where the boundaries are for our discussions.
Whilst I believe Emergent should make space for safe discussions and room for people to doubt and question anything about our faith, it is something else to land and move beyond questioning to forming new beliefs that are outside orthodox christian faith. Whilst Emergent, and the much larger emerging church has allowed so many of us room to do that, this book was one step too far for me. And I offer that from me, not a statement for emergent.
Then Mike Morrell editor at the Ooze, emailed me with a reminder asking for reviews, even if they were dissenting. So with that in mind I offer this, with a heavy heart. I have met Spencer, he bought me a great dinner a few years ago, and I like him. But I did not like this book at all, and couldn't. I'm sure I do the book a disservice, and may have misunderstood it, and offer this as a tentative outline of somethings that troubled me.
1. Heretic: A heretic is someone who denies orthodox Christian belief. This might be a clever word play but I donâ€™t like it, and donâ€™t think itâ€™s necessary. I can't see any reason to identify myself as a heretic. Spencer/Taylor also claim Jesus was the first heretic which I found bizarre, as Jesus is the basis for orthodox christian belief. Jesus was a radical reformer, and I'm all for radical reformation on an ongoing basis, but not heresy. And as I went through the book, I think Spencer expresses views that do indeed make him a heretic, with a small 'h'. (continued)
2. Anti-institutional: I go the impression that for Spencer/Taylor all organised religion is corrupt and bad, as if true spirituality can only exist outside any organisation. This feels like the myth of anarchist Christianity. It seems a call to an idealized version of spirituality, that has never existed and never will. The plea for this formation of faith seems more about anti-structure, anti-authority, and the move from structure to agency, than an understanding of the church in the bible and history.
3. Authentic spiritualty: The book seemed peppered with the call and mantra of self expression, again outside the corrupt organised church. Individualized, holistic self actualization and expression has more to do with the spirit of media consumer culture, than the mission of the body of christ (IMHO). The book seems to be more about 'the quest for self expression' than dealing with the realities of communal spirituality.
4. Grace: Spencer/Taylor want us to believe we are all born into in grace, rather than Grace coming through the death and resurrection of Jesus. In particular, he suggests salvation is about having faith in grace, with no mention of Jesus, his death and resurrection. Spencer's theology of grace seems more about the authentic experiences of transcendence with individualized intensity, than that which Jesus brings through his life, death and resurrection into our live. In that, the book seemed to have much in common with the theology of our culture, and the 'God of Grace', that we see in footballers thanking God for touchdowns, or actors for winning Oscar's. Grace almost seems to become a 'thing' for Spencer, a commodity of individual consumption that allows self expression. (And I'm making a big claim about Spencer's theology here in a blog snippet paragraph, and probably doing it very badly).
5. Sin: And in this state of Grace, there is no real notion of sin, the consequences of Sin, and how it figures in spiritual formation, unless I missed it.
6. Bible: Some of Spencer/Taylor's claims that no one recorded what Jesus said, and that we can't take Jesus literally, left me feeling that the bible was being undermined. Now I'm all for narrative approaches to the bible etc, that lift us out of the historical critical straight jacket that atomized the bible into logical proofs. But Spencer's approach left me feeling I could have no confidence in scripture at all. Not to mention his understanding of language, and interpretation seemed very ropey, but that is outside the realm of my expertise.
7. Universalism:Now I know from a detailed discussion on this site, amongst other things, that many of us have been moving from a hard exclusivism to a generous inclusivism, which seems more within the boundaries of historical orthodoxy. But Spencer/Taylor's universalism goes to far for me, in that it left me asking, why bother with Jesus, and his mission, amongst the many other objections to universalism that there are.
8. Trinity: God is spirit for Spencer/Taylor not a person, or at least they say they doesn't mind if God is not a person. I'm not willing to undermine or reject the orthodox view of the trinity, and think this has disastrous consequences for our understanding of salvation and spiritual formation, in fact most of our faith. I think this understanding of God as spirit is probably concomitant with Spencer's theology of universalized grace.
9. Why Jesus?: And I came away overall thinking, why Jesus, why bother with him, is he just an example of someone who received the spirit of Grace, and is a great example to follow, with others? I didn't recognise the Jesus of my faith, or the church traditions I am from, or the Jesus of the wider orthodox church.
If the book is about helping people understand that Christianity is more than praying a prayer to get to heaven, and church is more than structures around that process, I'm all for that. But for me the things above got in the way of that rather than helping.
I found the book hard as it seemed to wander over so many topics, so generally, making broad claims, that I found it hard to know what it was trying to do or be about. And in that, my critique here is superficial, and needs the help of some real theologians and biblical scholars. If your looking for a scholarly review, you would do well with:
Scott McKnight's 4 responses to the book.