All posts in Books

  • “Only the Suffering God Can Help”

    “Only the Suffering God Can Help”
    Brian Zahnd

    Very early in the development of Christian theology the doctrine of divine impassibility ascended to an unquestioned status. Commonly understood, divine impassibility asserts that God is not a subject of any passion, including pain and suffering. Throughout long centuries the doctrine of divine impassibility rested undisturbed and rarely visited in the library of Christian thought. But then came the twentieth century when advancements in technology tragically increased the capacity for human suffering. At the same time that our species was making significant advancements in medical science that lessened the suffering of disease, we also learned how to mechanize war and how to subject large portions of human beings to totalitarian control. From the Gatling gun to the hydrogen bomb, from the Third Reich to Pol Pot, the capacity to inflict suffering became exponential. The crematoriums of Auschwitz and the killing fields of Cambodia haunt our memories and torture our imaginations. In the ghastly light of the Holocaust the language of divine impassibility became untenable. From his cell in the Flossenbürg concentration camp shortly before his execution at the hands of the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned these words: “Only the suffering God can help.”
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  • The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: A Summary by Peri Zahnd

    The Patient Ferment of the Early Church: A Summary by Peri Zahnd

    I finished a book I’ve been promising myself I’d read for three years — when Covid lockdown hit I decided I had time. And it still took me three months of sporadic reading. I had to read it slowly so that it could seep into me — I took weeks-long breaks. The Patient Ferment of the Early Church by Alan Kreider, an academic book by a Harvard trained PhD, professor emeritus of church history and mission at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. It was an academic book, so it was exhaustingly comprehensive and tedious at times and certainly not for everyone. Brian first read it three years ago and loved it. There are lots of books he reads and loves I know I’ll never touch, and visa versa. But the title so intrigued me and I mused on it often. A patient ferment. A little leaven that slowly makes the bread rise, expand, grow, mature. Water turned to wine. How did the early church end up changing the world?
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  • Why Did God Create the World?


    Why Did God Create the World?
    Brian Zahnd

    I’m currently reading The Lamb of God by Sergius Bulgakov. Sergius Bulgakov (1871–1944) is widely regarded as the leading Orthodox theologian of the twentieth century. Regarding The Lamb of God, David Bentley Hart says, “This book is quite simply the most remarkable and impressive work of Christology produced in the twentieth century.”

    Today I read something so beautiful I felt I had to share it. This is the first three paragraphs of the chapter entitled “The Creaturely Sophia.” This is technical academic theology that some may find a bit daunting, so at the end I’ve added a few paragraphs from my book Water To Wine in which I attempted to say something similar. My take on why God created the world is less technical and less thorough, but perhaps it’s more poetic and more accessible.

    Here’s Sergius Bulgakov on why God created the world:
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  • Ash Wednesday


    The shadow of a cross on a cemetery wall in Spain.

    THE UNVARNISHED JESUS
    LENT Day 1 (Ash Wednesday)
    Mark 8:31– 38 | Jesus Foretells His Death

    We begin our Lenten journey with Jesus by hearing him tell us that he’s not headed to greatness as the world esteems greatness, but to the cross and to death. Peter and the rest of the disciples understand that Jesus is on his way to the capital city of Jerusalem to lay claim to the throne — to become the King of the Jews. But without any ambiguity Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer many things, be rejected by the chief priests, and finally be killed. Yes, Jesus also says that his apparent defeat will be turned to victory when he is raised on the third day, but his disciples probably hear this as an idiom referring to the resurrection of the righteous at some point in the future — as when Hosea says, “After two days he will revive us; on the third day he will raise us up.” That Jesus could become King of the Jews through suffering and death is inconceivable to Peter. For Peter, a messiah who is killed is a messiah who fails, and Peter didn’t sign up for failure. Jesus alone seems to understand that a breakthrough into new life is only attained through the experience of loss. Martin Luther was right, Christianity is not a theology of glory, but a theology of the cross. But to choose the way of the cross over the way of glory is a hard lesson to learn.
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  • The Unvarnished Jesus: A Lenten Journey

    The Unvarnished Jesus: A Lenten Journey
    Brian Zahnd

    I have a new book release! The Unvarnished Jesus: A Lenten Journey. This is a book of daily devotions taking the reader on a journey with Jesus from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. I know we’re still in Advent, but I wanted to give you enough time to have The Unvarnished Jesus for the beginning of Lent on February 26. Let me tell you how this book came about…
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  • In Praise of Ordinary Church

    In Praise of Ordinary Church
    Brian Zahnd

    Sometime in late modernity Christians who had deeply, though mostly unwittingly, imbibed the heady cocktails served by the high priests of the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Hume, Nietzsche, et al.) conjured the drunken idea that Jesus had given a writ of divorce to the church. In an age of suspicion committed to the critique of tradition how could it be otherwise? Surely the compelling figure of Jesus of Nazareth could have nothing to do with the tired institution that is dismissively referred to as “organized religion”? This secular assault upon the church found a surprising resonance among many Christians — especially pietists, revivalists, and rugged American individualists. Thus was born the modern idea of Jesus as personal savior (which really means private savior), leaving the church as little more than an optional common interest club for the more socially inclined. Jesus was essential, but the church was optional, or perhaps irrelevant, or even a hindrance to Christian faith.

    Today this kind of thinking is in full bloom. But what should we make of it? Or perhaps a better question is, what would the first followers of Jesus make of this development? I have no doubt at all that they would scratch their heads at this strange new private religion with its stunning capacity to misunderstand Jesus and his message.
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  • Walter Brueggemann’s Foreword to Postcards From Babylon

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    When I finished writing Postcards From Babylon there was only one person I wanted to write the foreword — Walter Brueggemann. So you can imagine how delighted I was that he agreed to write it for me and I would like to share it with you.

    FOREWORD

    As long ago as the sixteenth century, Martin Luther boldly voiced a vigorous either/or for Christian faith in terms of a “Theology of Glory” and a “Theology of the Cross.” By the former Luther referred to an articulation of Gospel faith that smacked of triumphalism that was allied with worldly power that specialized in winning, control, being first, and being best. For Luther, that theology was all tied up with the European imperial of his time. By the contrast of a “Theology of the Cross,” Luther referred to the risky way of Jesus that is marked by humility, obedience, and vulnerability standing in sharp contrast to and in opposition to the hunger for “Glory.” The “way of the cross,” for Luther, is demanding and costly because it contradicts the dominant way of the world.

    Now in a bold and daring articulation, Brian Zahnd has sketched a “Theology of the Cross” for our time and place in the United States of the twenty-first century. He does so in a way that deeply resonates with the primal claims of evangelical theology. He sees that the Gospel is inherently and inescapably countercultural because the God of the Gospel is in particular and passionate solidarity with the “left behind.”

    In this daring articulation, Zahnd pulls no punches. He sees that so much of the American church has been cozily allied with the high claims of U.S. nationalism that readily tilts toward imperialism. The whole package of dominant triumphalist faith adds up to “God and country,” with “country” being the tail that wags the dog of “God.” Most particularly, this triumphalist alliance has a long history of attachment to military ideology, the winning of wars, and the domination of other nations and their resources and markets. In one of his many poetic renderings, Zahnd offers a nearly unbearable riff on the aggression of Achilles in the Iliad and completes the thought of Homer as he enumerates at great length the inventory of wars in which triumphalist Christianity has been eagerly and characteristically implicated. That long alliance with brutalizing power of course has deeply skewed everything in the faith, offering both a caricature of the God of the Gospel and a distorted notion of both discipleship and of citizenship. Before he finishes, Zahnd goes on to see how it is that the Trump administration is a near perfect embodiment of that ideology of “lust, greed, and pride” and how so much of the church has sadly colluded with the Trump administration in a pretend embrace of Gospel faith.
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  • Christianity vs. Biblicism

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    Christianity vs. Biblicism
    Brian Zahnd

    (This is my foreword to Keith Giles’ excellent new book, Jesus Unbound.)

    As modern Christians we are children of a broken home. Five centuries ago the Western church went through a bitter divorce that divided European Christians and their heirs into estranged Catholic and Protestant families. The reality that the Renaissance church was in desperate need of reformation doesn’t change the fact that along with a reformation there also came an ugly split that divided the church’s children between a Catholic mother and a Protestant father. In the divorce settlement (to push the metaphor a bit further) Catholic Mom got a long history, a rich tradition, and a unified church, but all Protestant Dad got was the Bible. Without history, tradition, or a magisterium, the Bible had to be everything for Protestant Dad — and Protestants have made the most of it. For five hundred years Protestant scholars and theologians have led the way in biblical translation, scholarship, and interpretation, giving the Christian world such notables as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Jacob Arminius, John Wesley, Karl Barth, C.S. Lewis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, T.F. Torrance, Walter Brueggemann, Stanley Hauerwas, Fleming Rutledge, Richard Hays, N.T. Wright, to name a few.

    But with Sola Scriptura as a defiant battle cry there always lurked the temptation to place more weight on the Bible than it could bear, or worse yet, a temptation to deify the Bible and make an idol out of it. This has become increasingly true among the more fundamentalist clergy and congregations who are suspicious of higher education and unwilling to read their Bibles with the help of biblical scholars the caliber of Brueggemann, Hays, and Wright. So while pretending to “take the Bible as it is,” the fundamentalist reads the Bible through thick lenses of cultural, linguistic, political, and theological assumptions — interpretive lenses they are unaware of wearing.
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  • Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down

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    Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down
    Brian Zahnd

    Yesterday I heard Attorney General Jeff Sessions attempt to defend the deliberately cruel practice of separating immigrant children from their parents and placing them in separate detention camps by citing the Bible. This outraged me. This is not a partisan political issue, but a human rights issue. The United Nations human rights office, the American Psychological Association, Catholic Bishops, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Franklin Graham all agree. But using the Bible to justify this repugnant policy…well, that sent me over the edge.

    Here’s what I had to say about it last night on Twitter.

    Today I sat at my writing desk for seven hours working on the “Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down” chapter for my next book, Postcards From Babylon, and I thought I would share with you the last paragraph I wrote before calling it a day…
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