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Christian Reading: The Greatest Hits

Your next summer read may be in this post. As promised, I have some book recommendations to inspire you. This top 10 list comes from the pastor of my sister and brother-in-law. In no particular order, Pastor Jason recommends these summer reads:

  1. Too Busy Not to Pray by Bill Hybels
  2. The Life You’ve Always Wanted by John Ortberg
  3. If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat by John Ortberg
  4. Chasing Daylight by Erwin McManus
  5. Crazy Love by Francis Chan
  6. Sun Stand Still by Steven Furtick
  7. Searching for God Knows What by Donald Miller
  8. Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis
  9. Letters from a Skeptic by Gregory Boyd
  10. Knowing God by J. I. Packer

I have read three of the above books (5, 7 and 8) and can say they place on the list for good reason. It’s a safe bet that the others have equal “top 10” merit. After all, if the entire list is the same quality as Searching for God Knows What, anyone who has been reading this blog knows it would be a life-changing summer if someone read the whole list.

Do you think there are books missing from this list? What other books should a Christian read over the summer? I mean besides the obvious one too great to even compare with others. Seriously, comment with your favorite Christian reads.

And while you’re commenting anyway, maybe you can answer a question that came up with a couple friends this weekend. They were wondering who the contemporary, big-name Christian authors are. Those authors whose books become fodder for church small groups and they get invited to speak at every Christian conference in the nation? Who are those authors who everyone seems to talk about? Let’s start a list.

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Posted by on July 30, 2012 in Books

 

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Searching for God Knows What Part 7: The Greatest Love Story

In the thrilling series finale of the hit drama Searching for God Knows What

Donald Miller makes a confession here in the second to last chapter of Searching for God Knows What. He doesn’t claim to be right. He instead admits, “As for me, I’m somebody who repeats what I was taught in Sunday school using fancier language.” Isn’t that shocking? We’ve read almost his whole book and only now does Miller tell us that he stole the main ideas behind everything he writes.

But wait, he qualifies the confession with, “And yet it is amazing how I can take these beautiful things Jesus told me, this skeleton of the human story He explains in narrative and poetry, and turn it around as though I wrote it on the back of a napkin at Denny’s in a moment of inspiration.” And that’s why I still enjoyed reading his book.

Miller has a gift for polishing old ideas until they shine like new, though his writing as other attractions. The above quote is an example of something perhaps even greater than his refreshing perspective. The book carries on every page an honest and humble tone. Miller doesn’t claim he is right in all his ideas, let alone to have everything together. He doesn’t see himself as an experienced theologian who other people should listen to and trust without question. Rather he’s just a guy across the café table, telling you what he thinks about God. If you don’t agree with him, he doesn’t hold that against you. He won’t use it to separate himself as better than you, putting himself on the “right” side, while you’re standing in the “wrong.”

Still, you are never right, according to Miller. Even when you think you are, when you say you might be the slightest bit of right, not even then. He says no one can “be” right, because “right” is only an idea that we label as part of truth. Whether we agree with a “right” idea has nothing to do with our own “rightness.” We can’t claim the credit for an idea that was never ours. Memorizing scripture and winning Bible trivia games don’t make you a better Christian, either, let alone a better shot at a ticket to heaven. Thinking we know all the right answers has a strange effect that fills us up with air until other people become the ants we’ve risen above.

Miller responds that, “Scripture says the nature of sin is deceptive, so deceptive that a person’s mind can be carried away, and he will have no idea he has become something arrogant and proud and offensive until one of his friends slaps him on the back of the head.”

If you’re wondering about the biblical basis there, try Galatians 6:3 and James 1:26 for starters. God tells us our artificial trophy religion and all our hoarded knowledge do nothing for us in the end. Far from being medals of pride and honor, they mean nothing unless we know Jesus Christ and he knows us.

The Church has received some well-deserved criticism in recent decades. Many Christians, if not all of us, are outright hypocrites. Miller recognizes that we desperately try to prove our value, and ultimately Christianity’s, to the world. We want to show we are right and can still be cool.

Yet, for all her mistakes and blunders, Miller rejects the argument that the Church has to go. Religion has its failings and has caused severe harm in some cases, but then it is also beautiful when used to connect with Christ and spread his love to all people.

Shakespeare’s classic tale relates allegorically the greatest love story, that of Christians and Christ.

To show the relationship between the Church and Christ, Miller applies the example of Romeo and Juliet. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? The connection has surprising foundations in the famous balcony scene when Romeo comes to see Juliet at her home and later when the lovers are finally reunited only after dying. Miller goes so far as to say the poetic lines can match directly to the Calvinist theology of Shakespeare’s time.

“In this beautiful way William Shakespeare weaves the intricate complexities of the love relationship between God and the church into the context of narrative,” Miller says.

He argues that the best way to explain the gospel is not through formulas and lists, but through a series of stories that communicate the greatest love story. This is just what the Bible does, and which Shakespeare uses in Romeo and Juliet. We can’t simplify our relationship with Jesus to a cold list of things to believe and do. His love frees us from the lifeboat’s ropes. We can forget about accumulating wealth, beauty and status to give ourselves worth. Christ alone redeems us to Himself, our true love, and we will reunite when this life passes away.

So what’s my final review? Searching for God Knows What does not disappoint and is a worthy book to follow Miller’s previous bestseller, Blue Like Jazz. Other Christian writers should use Miller as an example if they want to inspire ordinary, lukewarm people to talk about the Bible and get to know Jesus.

I’m grateful my sister had the wise inspiration to give me this book for us to discuss together. It certainly can give anyone fortunate to read it much to discuss with anyone they choose, Christians and non-Christians alike. If you’re looking for all the answers to God and life, you’re looking in the wrong place. But if you want something engaging and thought-provoking, prepare yourself to probe deep into what you believe about the greatest love story the world has experienced.

 
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Posted by on July 20, 2012 in Books

 

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Searching for God Knows What Part 6: Stop Performing

Jean-Louis Forain [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Living in the lifeboat means we have to prove our worth to other people. If we don’t , we worry we’ll be thrown into the sea. Miller introduces a new metaphor in the next section of Searching for God Knows What. He compares life instead to working in a circus. Every circus performer wants the audience to clap for their act and therefore say they have worth in the circus. If they entertain the audience, they keep their jobs. Like performers, we want others to redeem us. We think others can save us if they say we have value.

Jesus’ words comfort us because he said we don’t have to perform to be loved. We don’t have to please an audience. We don’t need to act like circus monkeys. Jesus gives us freedom.

“This is what we have always wanted, isn’t it?” Miller asks. “And it isn’t the American dream at all, it is the human dream, the deepest desire of our hearts.”

But even then, we often don’t accept freedom for free. We continue to force ourselves to perform for God and other people. Maybe if we just act good enough, we think, then we can earn redemption and freedom. If we’re good enough, can we give ourselves value by performing to God and others? No, morality cannot redeem us, but we all know some sort of morality must exist. We want it to exist. As much as we idolize rebellion, we actually want rules and guidance. Without them, everything is chaos.

Morality can’t free us on its own, but we should follow it all the same. It means imitating God, choosing right over wrong. If you’re a Christian, though, morality is more a relational connection than a list of rules. That’s important to remember. If you do something immoral, you don’t just break a rule. You break your commitment to God, much like cheating on your spouse. It does not just violate the law, but love. This morality is personal and should not be belittled by claiming God’s grace when you disregard it.

Loving God and following his morality also means loving the other people he created. Miller brings up the hot button issue in churches of homosexuals and the Moral Right. Having morality does not mean condemning “immoral” people, setting yourself up higher than them. It doesn’t mean a “culture war” between Christians and the rest of America. No, if we’re going to follow Jesus, we have to love God and others above all. Our “war” is against Satan and his power, not the people he has captured and blinded.

“Morality, in the context of a relationship with Jesus, becomes the voice of love to a confused community, the voice of reason and calm in a loud argument, the voice of life in a world of walking dead, the voice of Christ in a sea of self-hatred,” Miller says.

Miller speaks from one step back, taking in the American chaos of squabbling voices and telling it as he sees it all. He addresses the major issues American churches like to debate, but instead of blaming liberals or homosexuals as some Christians are so fond of doing, he puts up a mirror and asks how we look when we argue about moral rules and judge people not like us. Is this the image of Jesus in the Church?

“The person who believes the sum of his morality involves gay marriage and abortion alone, and neglects health care and world trade and the environment and loving his neighbor and feeding the poor is, by definition, a theological liberal, because he takes what he wants from Scripture and ignores the rest,” Miller says.

Miller makes the case that God isn’t worried about fighting for power in one nation or about which party is in office (an especially good reminder this year). God wants to rescue the unloved and give them his Son. Those who have already gained life in Jesus are no better in their natures than when they were prodigals. Morality does not bestow superiority. We need to stop visualizing ourselves in a lifeboat or circus trying to fight to the “top.”

I would like to add that God-centered morality substitutes misplaced pride with proper humility. If we remembered we are nothing outside of Jesus, then perhaps our hypocritical tendencies wouldn’t get in the way of God’s children meeting their Father. Everything we do should point back to God and his unfathomable love. It should all direct our fellow humans to the One who can rescue them from this crumbling world.

 
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Posted by on July 6, 2012 in Books

 

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Searching for God Knows What Part 5: Controversial Jesus

In Searching for God Knows What, Donald Miller transitions from considering humanity’s “lifeboat” culture to how Jesus fit into this picture while on Earth. The lifeboat theory dictates that the most attractive, most popular, most powerful people win. They reach the top of the social ladder. But Jesus didn’t choose a good-looking body or rich parents with lots of friends in high places. He was born next to livestock and was raised by a father who did manual labor. Miller reflects on how Jesus contradicted our lifeboat ideas and wasn’t who the Jews expected to save them.

Miller summarizes a few important traits of Jesus in a list:

  1. He believed all people were equal.
  2. He was ugly.
  3. He liked to be with people.
  4. He had no fear of intimacy.
  5. He was patient.
  6. He was kind.
  7. He was God.
  8. He is I AM.

Each of these traits go against comparing and ranking people in value. Jesus showed everyone has value. Many of the traits Miller points out are often connected to Jesus, except for one. The one that stood out to me, as shallow as it sounds, is that Jesus was ugly. Think about any image you’ve ever seen of Jesus. He’s ruggedly handsome and dressed in a flowing white robe. If you read Isaiah 53:2-3, it describes Jesus as having “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” He didn’t gather crowds just with his attractive face, unlike our modern celebrities who don’t need talent for us to love them as long as they have good looks. In one of my recent theology classes, another student made the argument that Jesus was short. Miller considers whether we would pay attention to him if Jesus came to us today like he appeared to Israel back then. Probably not.

Today, we have trouble facing the real Jesus. We instead prefer to imagine our own make-believe Jesus, one we wouldn’t mind watching on television or inviting to dinner with our friends. We want an attractive Jesus who doesn’t cause controversy, but that kind of Jesus wouldn’t have been crucified. And then where would we be? With a Savior we like to show off but who otherwise leaves us in our hopeless state just as before.

If we can’t accept Jesus as-is, it only follows that we couldn’t accept his gospel either. Miller moves onto our current treatment of the gospel and connects it back to where he started the book with our love for formulas, step-by-step bullet points of information to give us what we want. Christian tracts and pamphlets used for ministry often condense the Bible’s message into five or six short points, or a small paragraph at the most. But as one friend pointed out to Miller, the Bible doesn’t include these concise ideas as the tracts represent them. They are found throughout the book and hardly summed up in a few words. Miller recognizes the important use tracts like these have in missions around the world, but he still puts forward the question of whether they really can give justice to the beauty and mystery of the gospel. “Perhaps our reduction of these ideas has caused us to miss something,” Miller says. In fact, it often does.

At this point in the book, Miller addresses a topic of many contemporary Christian sources struggling to break through the foundations of tradition to reveal what creation and all history up to Jesus’ resurrection–what the whole Bible–is really about. And even that we like to sum up in one word: relationship. I’ve noticed this trend, if I can call it that, of Christians addressing other Christians about developing a relationship with Jesus, and with God.

To be honest, I don’t remember a time in my faith when I didn’t hear that Christianity was about living with Jesus like you would a parent or spouse, not at all about whether you are a good person. Trying to be a “good person” was hopeless anyway, I heard, because Christians are bad just like everyone else. We are all fallen, broken, diseased. But God knows us, loves us even as we are, and wants us to love him back. He doesn’t want good deeds unless they come along with our hearts. He wants a relationship, not servitude.

Like the other Christians I’ve heard on this topic, Miller feels concerned that our formulas for the gospel cut out the relational aspect. The bullet points sanitize the gospel into objective facts to understand and accept. There’s no allowance for meeting God and falling in love with him. This doesn’t reflect the message Jesus taught. Miller says:

“It seems, rather, that Christ’s parables, Christ’s words about eating His flesh and drinking His blood, were designed to bypass the memorization of ideas and cause us to wrestle with a certain need to cling to Him. In other words, a poetic presentation of the gospel of Jesus is more accurate than a set of steps.”

We’ve instead turned the gospel into a sort of formula to get into heaven/have a happy life/look spiritual. We’ve bought into the world’s ideas of what deserves our attention and effort to attain. Isn’t life about getting what we want, what will make us happy? And those things are money, success, and sex, right? That’s not what Jesus tells us. We are not meant to live for the bottom line or to reach the top. The gospel isn’t some step of the ladder to happiness. The gospel is Jesus, who came here to reunite us with God, and being with God is all that matters. Forget everything you’ve absorbed about seeking to earn wealth, power, and medals. Forget about winning the most friends or having the hottest man or woman. It’s not even about getting your college degree, buying a house, and raising a family. That way of life is meaningless compared to the only one who is The Way.

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2012 in Books

 

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Searching for God Knows What Part 4: Comparison Living

Searching for God Knows What

No, I have not yet abandoned this series of posts. My university had spring break last week and I, fortunately, had quite a lot of time traveling in cars to finish reading Searching for God Knows What. SPOILER ALERT: It’s well worth reading to the end. But you already knew that. Anyway, so I fulfilled my promise to my sister and now only have to make good my promise to you, dear reader.

Last time (I don’t want to think about when that was), I left off by addressing Miller’s personality theory on humanity’s need for identification. A short refresher: Everyone is looking for someone to love them and give them an identity. The catch is only God can love us in the way that truly satisfies.

Okay, so we are living in the aftermath of the Fall, knowing something (or someone) is missing but not quite sure what, and looking for identification and affirmation from the world around us. Don Miller wondered what an alien would see if he visited Earth. He believes the alien would describe what defines human personalities as constantly comparing ourselves to each other. Think about our sports, games, competitions, even television shows, that pit people against one another and judge who is “best.”

Children are not spared from this mentality. Remember your days in elementary school? Even then, there were the kids everyone wanted to be friends with and there were the kids everyone would avoid if not bully. Just like the rest of known societies, school children have hierarchies.Miller describes it:

“From the first day of school the conversation is the same as it would be if hundreds of students were told to stand in line ranging from best to worst, coolest to most uncool, each presenting their case for value, each presenting an offense to the cases of others, alliances being formed as caricatures of reality television (or vice versa).”

We don’t outgrow the social ladder. It stays with us and expands from a playground to the whole world where every person we meet is ranked as above or below us in value. The higher you rank in value, the more love and value you feel, which is why it is important to reach as high as possible to get at what we used to get from God. That is, so we can get what we had before the Fall.

We’ve made a ladder of other people to try to escape this pit we fell into with the forbidden fruit. The problem is this ladder doesn’t reach the top of our pit, so even with endless climbing, we will never make it out. We feel a bit more daylight the farther we climb, but we are still plunged in the darkness.

Almost sunken boat.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Miller relates the social ladder to the problem of people in a lifeboat arguing why they deserve to stay in the boat. Have you ever confronted the hypothetical lifeboat problem (or a variation)? It goes like this: there’s a lifeboat with a bunch of people (let’s say a mom, lawyer, policeman, teacher and rich businessman) and someone has to leave the boat (i.e. drown) if the others are going to make it to safety. Other variations always force you to choose someone to die.

These kinds of problems make me feel like a horrible person, so I usually just claim it’s all hypothetical, which makes the point moot, anyway. There’s no way something like that would happen in real life. Miller disagrees, because we’re already living it. Just like the people in the boat, we all need to prove our worth in order for other people to accept and love us. We argue our value to save our lives, because if we don’t feel others affirm our value, we might as well die.

Miller draws this story to a point:

It would be prudent to summarize a few ideas that have brought us to this dilemma. If a human being is wired so that something outside himself gives him life, and if a separation from that something would cost him his life (physically, but also spiritually), then a human personality would seek a kind of redemption from a jury of his peers, and a lifeboat mentality would ensue across all cultures.

Isn’t it interesting that the “jury of peers” redemption seeking does occur around the world? And funnily enough, we can find in Genesis this idea of separation from the original something that gives life. Maybe the Bible explains the state of the world even more than we know. Just a thought.

 
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Posted by on March 27, 2012 in Books

 

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Searching for God Knows What Part 3: A Filled Cup, A New Name

Okay, I promise I haven’t abandoned this blog. It’s been almost a week since my last post, and that will probably be usual for the next few months. College life, you know.

For now, I will continue my review of Searching for God Knows What. These will not be as detailed or dense with quotes as the first couple not only because I have less time and feel lazy, but because I want to avoid copyright infringement. I greatly respect Don Miller and his work, and therefore do not want him suing me. I will instead continue pulling interesting ideas he presents and then commenting on them. If you are interested in following along with my reading, I encourage you to buy the book. It’s worth the full read.

Miller’s books live apart from other memoirs or theology books because he uses a humorous yet realistic tone. He brings up ideas in situations readers can relate with that, once read, you wonder why you hadn’t noticed the same things before. As you read, it feels as if you are discovering these new ideas along with him. Miller doesn’t put up any pretensions as he leads you through his story. He steps off the pages as a fellow human, someone with faults and without everything figured out. Refreshing.

Last time, I left off by saying how Miller’s childhood “god” deflated like his belief in Santa. Chapter three picks up with why Miller believed in God again. He found a person rather than the system of ideas he used to call “god.” The person he found, God himself and not a made-up image of him, turned out to be bigger and more powerful than he had ever thought of before. He said if you know God as he truly is, then you should fear him because of his overwhelming greatness.

If you read the Bible, you will see a fearsome deity who seeks justice and with the ability to destroy whole nations out of his righteous anger. God is not a pet. He is a wild lion with your head inside his jaws. His omnipotence should be enough to terrify, but God also wields all knowledge and exists in every place in every moment. Thank God his description doesn’t end there (not that he can be fully described, anyway). We can be relieved that he is perfect love. People seem to focus on this trait most and hold it above all else. And yes, it’s important, because it’s the only reason this world still turns. It’s the only reason we have any hope for the future.

But I want to discuss more in-depth another point Miller comes across. Reading the Bible, he saw God’s true greatness alongside our desperate need. The Bible began explaining humanity and our current condition better than any personality theory he had studied in psychology. Specifically, he noticed for the first time his searching need for something or someone to give him an identity. Every teenager experiences this. We call it “finding oneself.”

“I could see it in the people on television, I could see it in the people in the movies, I could see it in my friends and family, too,” Miller wrote. “It seemed that every human being had this need for something outside himself to tell him who he was, and that whatever it was that did this was gone, and this, to me, served as a kind of personality theory.”

In high school, Miller tried earning his identity from others by being the “smart” guy and memorizing poetry to attract the attention of girls. As you can guess, none of it satisfied. Earthly love, the broken love we gather from people around us, just leaks out of our cups and makes us look for constant filling up.

“Imagine, a Being with a mind as great as God’s, with feet like trees and a voice like rushing wind, telling you that you are His cherished creation,” Miller wrote.

That kind of love, when fully accepted, is enough to fill the cups of the world and never run out. Christians are called to be wholly engulfed in this waterfall. We are invited, not to subscribe to a list of ideas, but to identity and love in Christ.

A couple friends recently shared their struggle with losing themselves within Christ. They are concerned about giving up their identities, how they know themselves, to grow closer to God. I understand how they could feel afraid of this strange call. We Christians can accept many sacrifices: our comfort, our desires, even our lives. But who we are? That seems a bit much. How is it even possible?

We all can relate to searching for an identity. We constantly live in a state of personal redefinition. We change and grow. We find different names for ourselves: boyfriend, mother, leader, Doctor, Sergeant, President. Our lives and decisions form us. God extends us an invitation to a new, final identity. He wants to form us into who we were meant to be, before the Fall, and in relationship with him. We are comfortable with what is familiar. We don’t want to give up the moth-eaten, scratchy coats around us even as the stitching comes apart. God offers us silken royal robes.

Which will you wear?

 
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Posted by on January 31, 2012 in Books

 

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Searching for God Knows What Part 2: Let’s Be Real

Last time on Searching for God Knows What…

Emily finally fulfilled her promise to her sister. Donald dropped the rules and turned rebel. In a dramatic revelation, he discovered his long-lost Father wants to renew a relationship with him. But will Donald believe God’s his real father? DUN-DUN-DUN! *blackout*

Okay, so maybe this book isn’t a serial soap opera. (Though, you have to admit it would make a good soap title.) The second chapter goes on to talk about “God impostors” and how they lead us away from the real thing. If I can stretch my analogy a bit here, real life people represent fake gods just like you can never tell whether a soap character is really the next-door neighbor or the victimized daughter who got kidnapped as an infant and is now carrying her brother’s child.

Miller relates God impostors to department store Santas. The only difference is when he found out the dressed-up Santas are fakes, he figured this out because his mom finally filled him in that Santa doesn’t exist. If Santa isn’t real, how can the men sitting kids on their knees be the real thing?

“That is good and fine when we’re talking about Santa, but when we’re talking about God, the ramifications of an impostor are more upsetting,” Miller wrote. “There are, after all, a lot of people who don’t believe in God because they can’t reconcile their idea of Him with the idea presented on television.”

The media shows us pictures of a god who supports only conservative politics and wants us to blindly argue with our opponents, whose followers sexually abuse children and steal money from charities. These impostors show off their inflatable gods that look good on the plastic surface but are filled with air and no substance.

In high school, a psychology class punctured Miller’s God and left it deflated on the floor.

“I didn’t have a relationship with God; I had a relationship with a system of simple ideas, certain prejudices, and a feeling that I and people who thought as I thought were right,” Miller wrote.

Without the system he grew up believing, Miller had nothing left to separate God from his childhood belief in Santa Claus. You can imagine what happened next or read the book for yourself.

There are two questions I think every Christian could ask themselves at this point.

First of all, do I have a relationship with a God impostor or the real thing? How do you tell? The easiest test here is to go to the source, which for Christians, would be the Bible. There are many reasons I trust the Bible as my primary source of information, but let’s not go into that just now. To keep this short, your personal picture of God probably isn’t right if it doesn’t match up with the one the Bible gives. There is no excuse to skip taking this test. If you have internet connection (which I know you do, since you are reading my blog), you can read the Bible and check for yourself whether what everyone else tells you is true about God or not.

Next, if I know God as the Bible describes him, am I representing this God to others or leading them to know a fake? Don’t be the one reposting on Facebook those “Photoshopped” images of God. Look at your social media profiles and compare them to what you claim to believe. Do they match up? If you’re someone without a metaphorical mirror (or with a warped one), grab a Christian friend/mentor and ask for his or her honest view on the God-image you have taped to your shirt.

To be continued…

 
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Posted by on January 22, 2012 in Books

 

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