If you're like me, you can map your spiritual journey from people that you met along the way. These may be people that I met through their writings (John Howard Yoder). Other times, they are people that I knew personally, who came to be teachers (Stuart Murray), or friends (Caroline Ramsey, Jason Clark). Sometimes, like Kevin Beck, they could even turn out to be all three.
Kevin is the COO of Presence International, a former pastor, and a prolific writer on creative eschatology and transformative theology. Some time over the last ten years, he and I became regular conversation parners and I today I am proud to call him a good friend. However, there's no denying that Kevin is a raving heretic - which, thinking about it - may be the foundation of our friendship!
I first met Kevin when I was studying Jesus' teaching on the coming crisis facing Israel. Surrounded by academic theologians on the one hand and conservative Christians on the other, I was driven by two convictions: i) Jesus wasn't mistaken when he declared that 'the end' would come in that generation and ii) if God was anything like Jesus then we visions of the end seen in most Christian theology was far from true. At the time, there were a few people struggling with similar ideas, but - as far as I could tell - they were often insisting that any answers to these questions must come from within the confines of orthodoxy (which struck me as a completely dishonest method of exegesis), or they were (how can I put this?) complete fruit-cakes who were obsessed with eschatology and bored me silly. Thankfully, it's around this time that I discovered Presence and the view that they termed 'transmillennialism'.
Instead of anticipating a time of suffering and destruction, along with the end of the world, Presence saw the New Testament teaching the "Last Days" as related to the End of the Old Covenant world. That is the Second Coming of Christ, the Last Judgment and the Last Resurrection (2 Tim. 4:1) found their consummation at the fall of Jerusalem in the emergence of the New Covenant.
Regardess of where you stand on the detais of eschatological dogma (especially "the Big 3" above), we surely have to welcome a way of reading Scripture that emphasises eschatology as the means by which God has brought divine fullness to humanity, rather than the doomsday prediction of its destruction. (If you want to see a little more from this perspective, particularly to note how 'transillennialism' differs from 'preterism', check out Toward Creative Eschatology. For the record, Kevin and I often have friendly disagreements, but I applaud every word of that article.)
So, if we were to embrace a hope-filled eschatology, in place of a destruction-based one, just what would it look like? And what about the millennium, the resurrection, the Church and issues like universalism? That's where This Book Will Change Your World comes in. The main thrust of the book - intended to be an introduction to where the Transmillennial view is today - is to provide an alternative way of reading the Bible, one that is creative rather than catastrophic; one that is guided by love rather than fear; one that respects the varieties of language used rather than reducing everything to a crass literalism.
Who's not gonna want to read that? (Read on, to find out how you can receive your free copy!)
Kevin begins by using The Wizard of Oz to demonstrate that 'the way we tell stories matters' (p. 12). It turns out that it doesn't always honour the biblical narrative to simply chant, "The Bible says it; I believe it. That settles it!" The gist of the book can then be summed-up with this quote from the introduction:
I simply must believe that there's a truer way of telling the story. One that pictures God as someone kinder and gentler than the godfather. One that honors God for walking with us through the hurts, sorrows, and wounds of life. One that depicts God as love incarnate. One that sees Christ on the cross as the ultimate expression of divinity and humanity. One that blesses all families of the earth. One that finds God to be infinitely immanent rather than completely separate. One that recognizes humanity’s comprehensive connection in the ultimate all-in-all. One in which God decrees, “There's no place like home,” and so God has already made his home with us—not as an abusive despot, but as a tender and understanding presence (Revelation 21:3). (p. 13, 14)
The book goes on to stress the importance of appreciating the Biblical narratives in their original settings and resisting the urge to reduce symbolic speech, metaphors, and parables to literal predictions.. This changes how we read the Bible, especially its eschatological content. As Kevin says, when we change the way we read the story, everything changes.
These insights become particularly significant when it comes to exploring the major crisis that Jesus and his earliest followers were expecting in their lifetime. Were they mistaken? Were they talking about something other than "the Big 3"? Or is there some other explanation? It should be pointed out that in much of what he writes here, Kevin is following the scholarship of others who've gone before, who we would perhaps be more acceptable to those with concerns for orthodoxy. The only real difference, as far as I can tell, between Kevin and Marcellus Kik, Max King, GB Caird, NT Wright, Scot McKnight, RC Sproul, Andrew Perriman and - O, I don't know - me(!), is how consistent he is willing to be.
"The story as it tends to be told makes God out to be a frustrated failure just waiting for the day when he can get even with us………"
Keeping with this note of imminence in mind, along with a closer attention to how language is used, This Book Will Change Your World goes on to explore the 'world' that the New Testament expected to 'end' 'soon'. Most people take this to mean the end of the planet, but what if the original writers were looking for the end of another world. Is this, in fact, how we and the biblical authors speak all the time?
"It's the end of the world as we know it!" (REM)
"A whole new world...." (Disney's Alladin)
"The Best of Both worlds." (Hannah Montana)
Kevin quotes historian, Norman Cohn, who writes that, 'Cosmos, in the sense of an all-embracing, all-pervading order, was taken for granted in the Ancient Near East.' (P. 64-5.) Thus, Kevin concludes that the 'end of the world' anticipated by Jesus and the NT was not the end of the planet, but the end of that covenant age and the beginning of a new one.
Chapter 5 goes on to explore the kind of questions that will be running through your mind if you've read the review up to this point. What about the Second Coming? So, what is the Resurrection? Should we stil be waiting for the Judgment? What is the Millennium? And what about the Church?!
Now, if you're thinking that my friendship with Kevin means that I'm unlikely to say anything negative about the book, even if I didn't like it, you're wrong. In fact, our friendship means that I have no fear whatsoever in being honest.
I was a little disappointed with this chapter. Although I think that chapter 6 is, in a sense, the rightful climax to which the whole book has been heading, I can't imagine many people embracing the conclusions of chapter 6 if they're unsatisfied with the answers to the questions of chapter 5. I may love the idea that God now embraces all people, but if I can't get past certain passages in the NT that deal with judgement to come, I'm going to find it difficult to swallow.
It's not that I disagreed with Kevin's answers, although I think we do view the church differently. It's simply that I wished he'd doubled the length of this chapter. (To be fair, in 130 pages this concise book covers a lot of ground and that, obviously, means making some sacrifices.) Specifically, the question of the resurrection is of such significance - and asked so frequently - that I wished it had received more space. Maybe I'll offer to write an appendix on it and offer it to Kevin for future editions of the book! However, part of me wonders if I only think like that because of my 'churched' background. Maybe the kind of questions that sprung to my mind when I first encountered this way of thinking are not as significant to people who aren't as wrapped up in the system as I was back then.
Whilst I'm raising things about the book that I would have done differently (which, of course, doesn't necessarilly mean they'd be better!), let me come right out and say that I would not have written this book like this. It looks to me like Kevin has done his research well and has his finger on the pulse of contemporary spirituality. I wouldn't be surprised to see this book sweep across the US, following the path of The Shack, Pagan Christianity and even reaching those who like to dabble in a bit of Deepak and Oprah. In fact, Kevin seems to intentionally position the book there, as part of a wide global movement of awareness and awakening. (The irony is that I was pretty into Buddhism before encountering Christianity and yet I don't particularly buy the notion that there is a current awakening. I think Eastern religion is just being used as a fashionable way to express a global discontent with organised religion (good) and a vehicle for rampant individualism (bad).)
I suppose this will appeal to some people outside of the States, but us Brits are a cynical lot and we tend to prefer Jeremy Paxman to Oprah Winfrey. Of course, there's nothing wrong with "popular-level" books (what a patronising term!). Yet, I have to be honest and admit that I still have a knee-jerk reaction to anything that sniffs of popular spirituality. And when it comes to This Book Will Change Your World that's a shame, because there is really so much more going on here.
[Okay, now I do feel guilty and think that, as a friend, I possibly shouldn't have said quite so much!]
"It seems obvious that humanity’s religious insistence that fear and guilt are essential inhibitors to keep people from doing harmful things, hasn’t in fact kept humanity from doing those things." (P.121)
I've written this review as though This Book Will Change Your World was about eschatology. That's only because that was the context that I discovered Presence in. In reality, it's about so much more. This is a book about moving from fear of a God of wrath into relationship with a God of Love. This is a book about the peace of Comprehensive Grace - a term that still puts a smile on my face and a glow in my heart. (Seriously! I know that sounds a little "Hallmark", but it's true.) This is a book about post-eschatological hope and creative Societal Engagement. In short, this is a book about Agapetheism.
There's so much that I'd want to discuss from this chapter, that I'm at risk of simply re-writing it in my own words. So, instead, I'll just include a few choice quotes to whet your appetites. However, before I do so, let me share my one gripe with this chapter. Like the previous one, it could have been much longer. In fact, given the aim of the book, it would make perfect sense if the themes of this chapter took up at least half of the allotted pages, rather than the 19 that they do. That said, there's certainly enough to get your imaginative-theological juices flowing, as the following demonstrate:
'For me, reading the Bible in terms of fulfillment has changed the way I see God. It’s allowed me to move away from a view of an angry God waiting to punish people who aren’t lucky enough to think all of the “right ideas.” Seeing God in a new light has allowed me to appreciate that God really is Love. And this has opened up a New Kind of Theism transforming the fruitless millennia of fighting over who owns the rights to God—as if God were a commodity to be brokered. It transcends holy wars and jihads pervading our world in a premodern attempt to determine which God is the “right God.”' (P. 112)
I'm not advocating the abandonment of Christianity (because after all, Christianity needs to experience the love of God too!). Instead I’m suggesting we transcend and include. A post-Christian identity speaks into and shapes our post-Christian culture in ways authentic to the Biblical story and to our living context. Not by attempting to purify today’s church by returning to ancient forms. Not by replicating the function of believers from 2,000 years ago, nor by actively working for a nuclear Armageddon in the future. But by connecting God’s consummated world transformation with people’s lives and our world today. (P. 116)
'The core problem is one of deferred hope that leads to sick hearts. Postponing the presence of God and God’s kingdom until a future day delays our conscious participation in the creation of our world in the likeness of love. Eating from the tree of life—the tree of love—allows us to find, experience, and practice the blessing of God’s promises fulfilled.' (P. 126)
I believe awakening to God's comprehensive grace in a transformed covenant world allows us to feel an overwhelming sense of humble gratitude that reorients us from a selfish sense of “how I get to heaven” to “how can I be graceful in my world?” Grace is not dangerous. Fear is. Fear drives people to undue angst and needless panic. Grace calms us in the embrace of the God who loves us and the Christ who welcomes us. (P. 121)
Here's the good news...
This Book Will Change Your World provides the reader with a much needed step forward in our understanding of the future. Kevin takes us beyond Crystal Ball theology and fear-inducing eschatology, into an exciting and open future. Without skirting around any 'diificult' texts or controversial topics, he gets right to the heart of what fulfilled eschatology is all about - living in the fulfilling and transforming presence of God today. With an emphasis on a much-needed 'new kind of theism', this is creative theology at its best!
In fact, Presence have decided that this book is too important to sell. So, you'll be pleased to know that you can visit the website and download a copy for free! You never know, you may be overwhelmed by the vision of God - and the world - that this book proclaimes. Or, you may rejoice at its central argument, but be left with one or two niggling questions. Alternatively, you may be horrified at the levels of heresy that some people will stoop to. Either way, I suspect it's pretty difficult to read this book without some kind of strong reaction!
For me, this book offers a wonderfully accessible introduction to a way of telling the biblical story. And how we tell our stories is as important as the stories that we tell.