A patient, thoughtful author willing to build his characters and his world before rushing into plot events at break-neck speed.
The "Wheel of Time" series.
James Langton's performance was excellent, actually. But he didn't save the book for me.
I read a few chapters in and gave up. It is decently written, so far as the composition of paragraphs is concerned, but is poorly storied. To my surprise, no depth of character or context is established before whisking the reader away on a series of hurried plot developments that feel straight out of an early-nineties' straight-to-DVD fantasy cartoon adventure. I found myself feeling bleak about the prospect of reading the whole book, let alone the whole series, when I had so many other excellent books in the genre to sink my teeth into. I spent money on it, but I'm putting it back on the shelf. I would have enjoyed it if I were thirteen, but it doesn't age with the reader -- at least, if the first few chapters are any indication of the author's ability as presented in the rest of the book and series.
There were a few moments of good narration, but as a whole, this beautifully-written character-rich book was represented flatly and lifelessly. I understand that the main character is in the deep despair of an existential crisis -- I am there myself -- but that doesn't equate to malaise, nor does it justify very nearly interpreting all other characters in precisely the same way. There are several occurrences of awkwardness, as well as oddly too-slow or (more rarely) too-quick readings.
I am certainly not a fan of this narrative performance, and I have little qualm in stopping an otherwise good book for this very reason. But I persisted in this case for two reasons: 1) the text is just that good and I have the imagination to re-interpret the narrative on-the-fly; and, 2) the narrator, though uninterested or incapable of putting humanity and pathos into his narration of this work, does succeed in providing just enough for my attention-span to grip (almost paradoxically). Perhaps again it is the superb writing of Hesse and the book's resonance with a similar struggle in my own life, but I refer you to a few other reviewers who were more than pleased with this narration.
"Silence" has a Biblical quality to it. I suppose it is the way it raises tremendous difficulties — moral and theological conundrums, and existential crises — and then only subtly, even indirectly, points in the misty direction in which we might find answers for ourselves. This great art, which Scripture does so well, is knowing when to fall silent.
Such silence affects us strongly: it is pedagogically provocative and aesthetically magnetic. It is the silence which challenges us, drives us to reflect upon the "sparks flying upward" and wrestle with an angel in the dark.
When Jesus tells His disciples, "It is better for you that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counsellor will not come to you," He indicates that His tangible presence is somehow less helpful to us than His intangibility. It is better for us if His presence sometimes seems silence, than if His presence were something we could validate by experiment and sensation.
The striving, the reaching, the 'leap of faith', the crisis which requires us at last to rely purely upon our own subjective, soul-to-soul knowledge of Him as a Person — would we ever exercise ourselves in these if He were always within reach of our fingers or our prayers for fire to rain upon the altar? Thus is the silence of God.
And thus, after the Biblical art of silence, Endo's "Silence" reminds us all at once of Job's apparently senseless suffering, of Abraham's moral crisis, of Jacob's embattled renaming, of Judas' pious betrayal, and of Jesus' Ninth Hour.
But, of course, "Silence" is more about God's silence, than Endo's.
And it is just as much about what it means to really admit that we are weak, that we are not courageous, that we sin — it means to participate, not only in the suffering of Christ, but in the infliction of Christ's suffering.
Indeed, "It is for that reason that I am here," He says to us, as He says to the character Rodrigues. We need Him to suffer for us. He knows this and has come for this very purpose. And it is in this sense that we betray Him, and it is in this sense that He opens Himself to our betrayal: "What thou dost, do quickly."
He comes to our door, in our frightened and guilty times, to tell us that we should make Him our scapegoat. "Trample on me," He says, "I will bear your sin. I came to be trampled of men. I am your lamb. I am your sacrifice. Slay me."
"Lord, I resented Your silence," we say with the priest, when at last we feel we are heard.
"I was not silent. I suffered beside you," He replies, as we learn that this is not a God who wields power like a man, or stays distant and wholly apart.
"Then from the lowest, weakest tone of suffering, up to the loftiest pitch, the divinest acme of pain, there is not one pang to which the sensorium of the universe does not respond; never an untuneful vibration of nerve or spirit but thrills beyond the brain or the heart of the sufferer to the brain, the heart of the universe; and God, in the simplest, most literal, fullest sense, and not by sympathy alone, suffers with his creatures." (George MacDonald, "The Marquis of Lossie")
I am pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed "Love Wins". I've never been a Rob Bell fan, having started (but never finished) "Velvet Elvis" and "Sex God", but this book is worth picking up and wrestling with. For that reason — the value of wrestling with its topics — it will stand as one of the more important popular books of the decade. It isn't very deep. It isn't very broad. But it asks excellent questions and it has reached a large audience with those questions.
After having just read C.S. Lewis' "The Great Divorce" for the second time, I began Rob Bell's "Love Wins". The similarities are apparent. It's quite clear that Lewis' perspective on the subject of Hell has influenced Rob. I don't think that Bell's views of the Afterlife are identical to those of Lewis, but he's certainly not less orthodox in this area than Lewis.
One thing that struck me a little less than half-way through: "Love Wins" quotes from Scripture a lot — much more than the average Christian book, I would say. Significantly, Bell doesn't spend a lot of time trying to take verses that seem on the surface to contradict his points and show how they really don't contradict his points. Instead, he spends most of his time quoting Scripture in showing how frequently and in how strong language the Bible at least seems to indicate that eventually "all shall be well". This is significant because it's apparent that his purpose with this book is to get us to dialog about Heaven and Hell — about the tension between how we often view world history, in light of Christian belief, as a tragedy, though the Bible in many places rises to the highest superlatives of grandeur seeming to tell a different story. The Bible does say powerful things like:
• "As in Adam all die, so in Christ all shall be made alive." (1 Corinthians 15)
• "All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the LORD, and all the families of the nations will bow down before him, for dominion belongs to the LORD and he rules over the nations. All the rich of the earth will feast and worship; all who go down to the dust will kneel before him — those who cannot keep themselves alive. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord." (Psalm 22)
• "Love is patient... it always protects... always hopes... Love never fails." (1 Corinthians 13)
• "Having made known unto us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, which he hath purposed in himself, that in the dispensation of the fulness of times, he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth, even in him." (Ephesians 1)
• "At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2)
• "For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross." (Colossians 1)
• "But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he, by the grace of God, should taste death for every man." (Hebrews 2)
• "Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people." (Luke 2)
• "For he must remain in heaven until the time for the final restoration of all things, as God promised long ago through his holy prophets." (Acts 3)
• "He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces." (Isaiah 25)
• "I will not contend forever, neither will I be always wroth; for the spirit should fail before men, and the souls which I have made." (Isaiah 57:16)
• "The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever." (Psalm 103)
• "For I will not fight against you forever; I will not always be angry. If I were, all people would pass away — all the souls I have made."
"His mercy endureth forever." (Psalm 136)
Those verses sound pretty all-encompassing. And the list just goes on and on, in both Testaments. We need to talk about this. There are passages in the Bible that sound just as strongly certain of the ultimate reconciliation of all people as other passages do of the ultimate condemnation of some people. Scripture contains many forceful words on both 'sides'. Who are we to dismiss either emphasis out of hand? Who are we to baulk at such a serious issue? Not one drop of ink was spilled by the Bible's own authors to attenuate the clear strength of such phrases as "the final restoration of all things". Paul never corrects himself or bothers to lessen the force of his words, and James doesn't correct him either.
So, how should we take such a difficulty? Do we try to write it off, saying, as many have, "Well, 'all,' of course, doesn't really mean 'all.'"? No. Besides, the same kind of flippant response could be used against the word 'eternal' in passages which speak of 'eternal hell' -- and with surer linguistic support (we knew this about the word 'eternal' even in my diehard, hellfire fundamentalist seminary: we just didn't like to talk about it much). But I don't think it's the most helpful (or healthy) to approach the apparent paradox in this way at all.
What we should do: Accept that the Bible leaves many questions unresolved, and at least sometimes on purpose. Accept that the Bible forces us to trust God for the truth; it isn't here just to spoon-feed us. Paradoxes aren't contradictions. They are truths we don't know how to reconcile. And we little fools have to learn to be okay with that! If an Infinite Being exists, then there is an infinity of truth which must forever be unknowable to any particular finite being! That is, there will always, always, always be for us far more mysteries among the truth than certainties. We will always have gaps in our knowledge. Don't you think it's time we admitted it? Our certainty must reside precisely in a Person, not in a knowledge of facts -- or are we just another sort of Gnostic?
What the Bible tells us without question:
1) It's big trouble if we don't trust and obey God.
2) It's big salvation God has in store.
You want more detail than that? What for? I fear that we drive ourselves toward intellectual certainties in order to put off real obedience.
Trust Christ and obey Him, and suffering will turn at last to joy. That's it. Some way or other, however God does it, whenever God does it, whoever it includes, love wins. Goodness wins. God wins. Whatever that means, it is the best possible of all outcomes, because it is the outcome the perfect God will have orchestrated. If we trust Him, and it will be enough.
That, I think, is the point of "Love Wins".
But if we merely assume that what we have been told is true is indeed true, then we merely perpetuate the very root problem that got us to the point where God allowed (at least) or encouraged (at most) a Reformation in the first place. The pursuit of truth requires a willingness to accept that which we do not already accept (this is the very foundation stone of learning), and a willingness to accept that many things we do not know, and will never know, are also true.
Astonishment. "Erasing Hell" was conceived, at least partially researched, written, edited, printed-en-masse, marketed, and released within just four months of the publication of the book it is attempting to refute.
"Erasing Hell" should have been subtitled: Universalism Is Definitely False, But We Don't Know Why
I listened to the audiobook edition of this work, which contains an elaborative interview with the authors. In the interview, the authors (to whom I will refer collectively by the headlining name, though I understand that the greater part of the work was Sprinkle's) admit that the book is a response to "Love Wins" (a fact, as I recall, not acknowledged in the book), making Bell's book required reading for a fair shake — but that both books are rather theologically, logically, and exegetically weak should be of concern to anyone caring to really approach the subjects at hand. "Love Wins" is a dabbling introduction to the debate between Everlasting Conscious Torment and Universal Reconciliation. "Erasing Hell" is a dabbling introduction to this subject, as well, but a dabbling introduction in rebuttal of another.
The main difference in this regard is that "Love Wins" embraces its role as an inadequate introduction a little more honestly than does "Erasing Hell". This is likely due in no small part to one of the very reasons Bell is ridiculed so continuously: he's more interested in making you think than in telling you what he thinks, so he can come off as a dodgy problem-starter with no answers. I don't know the man; this criticism may be more or less true: God knows him – though I think it is a supremely Christian thing to give the benefit of the doubt. But if you are going to write a book shallow on intellectual argument (which is perfectly fine, and not by any means to be shamed), but written on the subject of a highly-controversial intellectual debate, you would do your readers a service to propose your positions with more than the usual diffidence: this is more Bell's strength than Chan's.
Despite Chan's incessant repetition of "I don't want to believe this, but I have to", "Erasing Hell" comes off more like a hurried "Cliff Notes to 'Everything You Need to Know About Hell'" than an introduction to the subject – and no wonder: "Erasing Hell" was conceived, at least partially researched, written, edited, printed-en-masse, marketed, and released within just four months of the publication of the book it is attempting to refute. "Love Wins" eeks by with just a little more modesty and a little more trust in the reader's willingness to continue thinking after they finish the book.
This is only a literary criticism, however, and may after all have quite a lot to do with the stereotypical psychological influences of the two positions: the stress-relieving effect of a strong hope that God will inevitably succeed in reconciling all the dead non-Christians you've ever known, and the converse anxiety-inducing effect of a strong conviction of the impending and unending torture of all the non-Christians you've ever loved.
I should move on to more ultimate perspectives: the theological and exegetical (Biblical interpretation).
One problem is a seeming blurred line between Calvinism and Arminianism, causing the book to suffer from an overall lack of an integral system. Some background: Arminianism and Calvinism function as internally-consistent rational systems for explaining how God can allow some people to become ultimately condemned. Arminianism remains consistent because it claims, "God loves everyone unconditionally, but is unable to save everyone he loves because his character prevents him from infringing on human will (assuming that it is not possible to save everyone without infringing on human will)." Calvinism remains consistent because it claims, "God is in fact able to save everyone (regardless of human volition), but because he has chosen to hate some people in order to demonstrate his glory through wrath as well through grace, he chooses to not save everyone from condemnation, or as it may be, decides apart from any quality or act of their own who he will condemn." These are the two integral Protestant non-Universalist solutions to the dilemma.
A traditional approach to refuting Universalism, therefore, would be either clearly Arminian or clearly Calvinist. "Erasing Hell", on the other hand, sometimes looks like one, sometimes the other.
Thomas Talbott states the above synopsis of Arminianism and Calvinism in other words, via his now-famous propositions:
"(1) It is God's redemptive purpose for the world (and therefore his will) to reconcile all sinners to himself;
"(2) It is within God's power to achieve his redemptive purpose for the world;
"(3) Some sinners will never be reconciled to God, and God will therefore either consign them to a place of eternal punishment, from which there will be no hope of escape, or put them out of existence altogether.
"If this is indeed an inconsistent set of propositions, as I believe it is, then at least one of the propositions is false. Calvinists reject proposition (1); Arminians reject proposition (2); and universalists reject proposition (3)." (see "The Inescapable Love of God" for more)
Though Chan proposes a Calvinistic understanding of God's wrath, his position on God's love remains transparently Arminian. By the end of the book, his solution is – if I may broadly paraphrase: "God wants to save everyone and is capable of saving everyone, but he doesn't, so we must conclude that we do not know what 'God's love' means [— I would add here as well: 'despite Biblical definitions and examples of God's love']." In other words: "Universalism is definitely false, but we don't know why." Both typical Calvinists and Arminians claim to know why. Thus I suggest a fourth proposition with which Arminianism, Calvinism, and Universalism agree:
"(4) A basic knowledge of the moral character of God is possible, and therefore at least a preliminary rational system of theology is also possible."
The authors of "Erasing Hell" appear to agree with propositions (1), (2), and (3), but reject (4). They have chosen to give up a rational, coherent system of theology: something all three traditional positions maintain.
I applaud the authors' ability to embrace a certain level of mystery and ambiguity — this is a trait sorely needed in Christianity today — but as this is a question that concerns the moral character of God, which is a much more fundamental issue than the existence and nature of Hell, I cannot agree with Chan and Sprinkle. If I must choose to be uncertain either of Everlasting Conscious Torment or of God's inherent moral goodness, I cannot choose to be uncertain of God. I cannot condone their position, because I cannot condone the theological method which results in that position. Holding to the character of God is more important than holding even to the character of the Bible, in logical order.
The problem is in majoring on "Theology General" and allowing our conclusions there to shape our beliefs on "Theology Proper". I ask you to consider whether this is right. Shouldn't the nature and character of God ("Theology Proper") be the absolute basis of all other theology ("Theology General")? We must start with who God is, and allow the answer to that question to ripple through all the theological satellite issues (rather than the other way round): "The goodness of God must be true, but I cannot reconcile this other doctrine at hand, so I must postpone judgment on it until he has taught me further. God must make me see the goodness in it — he must change my conscience — before I can believe he does something which I am not convinced is good, right, loving: fitting with his character. I may not refute the doctrine yet, but I also cannot in all good conscience embrace it yet — to do so would be to sin against my conscience, as Paul in Romans warned. God's goodness, and my simple faith in that one fact, must be enough for me for now. I will take not one intellectual step which contradicts His development of my heart thus far."
Another problem is that one of the most important exegetical issues for a Biblical investigation into the possibility of Universalism or Annihilationism, is the interpretation of the usages of the Greek "aeon" and "aeonios". Even during my fundamentalist "hell fire" seminary days, I knew the traditional translations of these words are often questionable, and the original semantic range was quite broad and various. "Erasing Hell" does broach the issue, but the result is the most disappointing attempt at an argument in the book. I was hoping for some real work here, but the book leaves one of the two or three strongest Biblical bases in favor of Christian Universalism nearly untouched. Exegetically speaking, this was where the authors' battle was lost.
CONCLUSION: "Erasing Hell" will hardly sway anyone on the fence who was not already leaning toward Everlasting Conscious Torment. It may sate those who do not wish to contend with the issues any longer than is necessary to read the book, as well as those who were never willing to reconsider what they were taught in the first place. These will point to "Erasing Hell" every time "Love Wins" is mentioned, but few others will.
For a more substantial book weighing the options between Universalism and Exclusivism, see "Universal Salvation?: The Current Debate", edited by Robin Parry.
The narrator doesn't even try to pronounce world-renown philosophers' names correctly -- in fact, pronouncing them differently in different places. His reading slows to a hesitant crawl frequently, to the extent that it seems clear that the recording took place upon his first reading of the material -- not at all professional, especially for a narrator of an eminent work of philosophy!
But it gets worse: you can sometimes hear a sneer or baulk in the man's voice where, due to apparent lack of comprehension, he finds the philosophical talk ridiculous!
I don't want to be ungenerous. I may be mishearing and reading into that which others might hear differently and more truly. But, regardless, I found myself so utterly distracted by Nick Hahn's narration that I simply could not continue the book. My sense of literary professionalism (which is not at all normally very strong -- oh me, I refuse to wear proper slacks into the office!) is so affronted, I really would like a refund in protest.
Imaginative settings and characters, exciting plot with compelling twists, strong morals — an excellent story!
I listened to the audiobook version by Oasis Audio. I found the narrator a little slow and lumbering, and there are some places that should have been re-recorded. I had a little difficulty staying engaged in the first part of the book because of this, but I think it is no fault of the author. Once the story picked up speed, I never gave another thought to the narrator. I became so absorbed into the plot that I never wanted to pause the audio.
Peterson's story kept me begging for the next page and daydreaming about what comes next. I am chomping at the bit to read the two succeeding books in The Wingfeather Saga! FIVE STARS!
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