One of the things that I hear rather often when people are trying to talk me out of being a Christian is that no deity worth its salt would care about our opinions. If said deity is all-powerful, then what does it matter if we love or hate it/them? We certainly don’t care much if we are respected by the cicadas who leave their husks so wantonly on our summer’s-end trees. So much more so a god, right?
Those people would not like John Piper. Those people wouldn’t really understand John Piper, nor would they understand his argument. Because God Is the Gospel isn’t about God really really wanting us to like Him, as if He’s just received our Oscar. It’s about us seeing that He really really likes us, so much so that He’s willing to let us see how awesome He is.
I find this a little hard to get used to, although I’m drawn to the concept because I like the return to a God much bigger than us and our desires. But I’ve been raised in a culture where self-promotion = arrogance (so yes, keeping a blog is actually a really weird detour for me), which makes this entire book seem to present God like some kind of narcissistic mystic.
John Piper is such a frustrating theologian because he does have some really good ideas, although this one was a bit odd for me—BUT THEN HE DRIVES THEM INTO THE GROUND. The core concept is interesting and, in this case, something I’d really like to pull apart. But instead of pulling it apart, Piper writes every chapter in defense of his thesis—blatantly so—such that it felt like reading one of my students’ papers. Does every paragraph opening go back to supporting your opening statements? Do you have a conclusion that restates your argument? Do you clearly state your thesis? I don’t want to read students’ papers in my time off (actually, if they wrote in this neighborhood of coherence, I would complain a lot less). I find that theology books that read like I’ve forgotten your thesis from one page to the next irk me; I can keep an idea close for a while, thank you very much.
There were two points that I really appreciated about this book, though. In chapter 11 (“The Gospel—What Makes It Ultimately Good: Seeing Glory or Being Glorious?”), Piper has a small section titled “When Unconverted People Get Religion” (another peeve; he lurves subtitles within chapters). It deals with the fact that you can have religion without truly believing much of anything you’re hearing, and this is so true; I’ve done it, sadly, and I see several people I know doing it still. Although I’m not down with all of his language, I totally agree with Piper’s idea that some people are drawn to church because that’s the only place they feel loved, the only place they feel as though they matter; in Piper’s words, where they “are made much of”. Props and huzzah to the churches that create that feeling, as that’s a necessary entrance to faith sometimes, but it can’t stop there—the goal is not to be loved because it’s nice, but to be in relationship with the living God Who created love and us and the propensity to love and be loved. When this gets missed, or left out, the church is no longer much more than a self-help group. Piper is totally right, I think, to call this out as a distortion (or lack) of a true faith.
The other point I particularly liked was in the conclusion (“God Is the Gospel—Now Let Us Sacrifice and Sing”) subtitled “The Final Good that Makes the Good News Good Is God.” I think I was drawn to this in light of the Hell-wrangling I did this past summer, because Piper points out the conundrum that if we’re going to get really excited about Heaven or any other kind of bettering afterlife, we need to know why we want to go. What is it that makes Heaven better than the alternatives, if we’re given to thinking of alternatives? I mean, yes, the traditional thing is obvious—life (death?) sucks in Hell because of the Dante-esque punishment, but is that all? “Oh, how many there are for whom heaven represents merely the absence of pain and the presence of eternal happiness!” (167) Piper is trying to explain (belaboredly) that in this conversation, we have to get square about how much we actually want God and how much we just want to live the good…death. This, I think, is important to note, important to examine; if we’re going to be serious about the old comparison that God is not a vending machine, we have to be serious about it the whole way through.
One last annoyance was that I don’t want to read the manifesto of John Piper—so many of the footnotes were to his own work that I began to wonder if he’d read others (besides Jonathan Edwards, for whom he has a deep fondness). And many of the notes to his other books were admitting that whole chunks of this were just reprintings of those! If I wanted to read your other book, I would have gotten your other book. Well, actually, since this was given to me by a friend years ago, I suppose I would have asked to borrow a different book.
So yes, I am intrigued by Piper’s concept of the Good News being, at its core, the opportunity to have a relationship with God. I just wish the presentation of the idea didn’t feel like a Piper LLC catalog out of a freshman comp class. I think I’ll stick to only one Piper book on my shelves, that seems to do the trick.
Rating: 2.5/5 stars