Monday, November 15, 2010
Book Review- "Discovering the God Imagination: Reconstructing a Whole New Christianity," by Jonathan Brink
Sometimes we are absolutely certain we understand something, and are in fact so sure of our comprehension, we base our entire lives on it. I was sure I understood Christianity and even more sure I had no use for it. And then I read Discovering the God Imagination, by Jonathan Brink and it changed everything.
I hope I’m not getting anyone’s hopes up. I should probably clarify: I’m not going to start attending church and I still don’t believe in hell. But I’m literally and figuratively re-opening the book on God. Yeah…that book. I have a love-hate relationship with the Bible, but thanks to Brink, I’m giving it another read.
If you were to take the classic fairy tale, Cinderella, cut each individual word out, throw all these words into a hat, shake them around, pour them out on the table and ask someone unfamiliar with the Cinderella storyline to use the individual words to create a story, it is unlikely that the end result would be the version of the story we grew up with. Sure, there would be a pretty dress, a pumpkin coach, a beautiful maiden and a romantic ball, but the way the happily-ever-after shakes out might be nothing like the story we have come to expect.
Jonathan Brink does something similar in his book. All the elements of the creation-to-crucifixion drama are there, but they are told in a way that changes the entire meaning of the story that has defined modern Christianity. Brink himself comes out of this very tradition, 2,000 years in the making, which has interpreted the God/Human story in a very definitive way; he clearly grasps this widely-accepted interpretation and then promptly turns it inside out.
Brink challenges the Christian framework in a manner that is, at once, supremely bold and stunningly simple. All the key elements of the story remain, but they are arranged in an entirely different way that makes the “happily ever after” something altogether new and different. It’s as though Disney’s Cinderella was re-told so that the evil stepmother is reformed, becomes the heroine and rides off, Prince Charming in tow, to begin a new life as a fairy godmother.
I spent the first 30 years of my life trying, not to make a religion work, but to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. I was an evangelical Christian in the truest sense. But about 2 years ago, I opened the door, invited all the questions, doubts and instincts I’d kept locked up tight to come in, have a seat and speak freely. I finally got honest with myself and the consensus was that not only did I not want to go to church anymore, but I could no longer say I was a Christian. I wanted to believe the “right” things, but I just didn’t, and in retrospect, I realized I hadn’t for quite some time.
Leaving Christianity was painful; I’ve likened it in many ways to a divorce. Though it was a profound and palpable relief to finally allow myself to stop fighting to keep my true feelings and thoughts at bay, Christianity was like a thread woven through the entire fabric of my life and pulling it out was simultaneously the removal of a source of huge pain and a deep, gut-wrenching loss. The desire for a personal relationship with a God who loved me wasn’t easy to give up and walk away from.
It was difficult and painful to insist on what my inner knowing says when, from all accounts, I was walking away from God by doing so. I don’t want to “walk away from God.” Decades of my life were spent wanting a personal connection with God more than any one thing in my whole life, so following my knowing, what felt like away from God, has been painful, hard and many times, desperately lonely.
Then I read this book. Brink’s interpretation of the Biblical narrative is like looking at the whole of my life with a pair of glasses on and being shocked to realize what looked and felt like one thing was something else entirely. What if it wasn’t that I was “walking away from God” at all? What if, all along, he was “calling” me away? The exercise of thinking that’s possible, for even a minute, floods me with a mixture of joy, remorse, regret, pain and sadness.
Brink looks at the Biblical narrative and sees what he calls “the God imagination” at work. To look at not just the Bible, but my own life, through that lens means letting my assumptions go. Among other things, Brink says challenging our assumptions involves “leaving old stories behind.” He goes on to say that, “it means starting over again and building new ones…finally answering the deeper questions in our souls, the ones haunting us when we sleep.” (p. 72)
The prospect of doing so is, for me, terrifying. Re-opening the book on God means going back to “the scene of the crime,” as Brink refers to it. It means returning to the very ground on which I was hurt most, knowing I might be hurt again. I know from experience that anything that’s worth anything requires just that sort of “all in” risk, but that doesn’t change that it scares me to death.
Brink responds to this very fear when he says: “Reconciling our assumptions means we just might have to engage in our own restoration. It means we just might have to tear away the covering which blinds us to the God imagination. It means coming out of hiding to discover our worst fears aren’t true.” (p. 72)
Now I have to ask: what if the stuff that has always felt “off” for me about Christianity is also “off” in God’s mind? I experienced such pain, rejection and fear during my “questioning/doubting” years that the idea that I was on the right track all along makes me weep – both for the waste and the hope. Do I have the guts to go back and take another look?
Previous to reading this book, I had easily and without equivocation left Christianity behind. Discovering the God Imagination hasn’t “brought me back into the fold” by any stretch of the imagination, but it has created a space in which I am able to look at the concept of God with new eyes, for one reason and one reason only: it paints a picture of a God who sees me with eyes that, when I look into them, I realize I have seen before. They are familiar in the way the bar of a song sung in childhood might be. The expression of love and acceptance in those eyes is what I recognize I’ve been waiting for all my life. To be honest, I don’t know what to do with that, except to keep gazing into them and follow my heart.