Thursday, May 19, 2016

Nothing is Wasted by Joseph Bentz

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

Nothing is Wasted by Joseph Bentz opens with seven chapters about redemption. This is the stated point of the book - to encourage people that tragedy is not the end of the story, that the narrative of the world is one of redemption, that God brings beauty from even the ugliest of things. In these chapters, he uses stories, both modern and ancient to illustrate both the tragedy of the world in which we live and the beauty of redemption. Bentz, a literature professor at Azusa Pacific, is a talented writer. His prose is warm and inviting; he paints a great picture.

It's also a vital topic. I believe redemption to be the highest form of love, the purpose for existence itself, and the highest of beauty. THe first half of Bentz's book provides a powerful and forceful picture of the importance of redemption. He talks about how God is always at work making good out of bad. When I picture the beauty of redemption, I most often picture undeserved redemption - when goodness and mercy flow to me even after I've created my own tragedy. Bentz focuses more on undeserved tragedy and the universal human deserving of redemption. This is probably more interesting for the reader.

People question why bad things happen to good people; it might be the defining question of faith and human existence. Bentz tries admirably (and wisely) to stay out of that debate, focusing more on the redemption which God can bring from tragedy, but it's an impossible task. Those early chapters fall short in not addressing the underlying unspoken "why?" Bentz puts the notion that God does not cause tragedy in the mouth of one of his story subjects, but also gives indication that God uses tragedy for a purpose in the explanation of others. There is some talk of free will, but also determinism and it's pretty unclear how exactly Bentz wants us to view God role in tragedy.

I get why an author (and publisher) would seek to avoid what can be a controversial topic - it might slice up the readership for the book and detract from the univerally acknowledged reality of redemption. Still its hard to manage one without the other and that's a real problem in Nothing is Wasted.

The other issue is the second half of the book. A book that begins with sprawling, contagious narratives of hope and redemption ends up in a very narrow, conventional folk theology about Christian life and afterlife that really puts a damper on the wonder and beauty of the opening chapters.

There are several chapters that speak to the notion God might use tragedy to wrench us out of an unhealthy existence, but there's no real care to parse the difference between God using tragedy for this purpose and God planning tragedy for this purpose. At times, these chapters come off as laying guilt on people for not accepting the adventurous challenge of a Spirit-filled life with the gusto they probably should. It seems a far cry from the good news of redemption in the midst of pain and struggle - almost as if he's trying to cram too many objectives into one text.

One of the most joyous results of redemption is the peace and beauty it can provide for people in this life, yet the final chapter of the book talks about how this life is relatively unimportant in light of eternity. This seems to be the opposite of Christian teaching, in which the eternal life of Christ can begin here and now. On page 172 he writes, "Eternity is the fulfillment of the good things our earthly life promises but never quite delivers. It is not simply more of what we have now; it is a life of an entirely different character." I'm not sure I could disagree more; in fact I said pretty much the opposite in a Sunday School class I taught just two weeks ago.

I believe scripture teaches eternity will look very much like the life we live now - yes, there are some redemptive differences we don't fully understand, but we understand that the love, redemption, grace, and peace of eternity is possible here and now. This is the very heart of what makes the Church of the Nazarene distinctive. I'm unsure if Bentz is a Nazarene (although he did go to Olivet Nazarene University for undergrad), but certainly the publishing company is and it seems silly to miss the opportunity to reinforce this point in print.

Finally, the last chapter further talks about how our lives here and now are a constant struggle to find fulfillment. Bentz paints heaven as the thing which will fulfill that desire - even using the extended analogy of medically procured long life to illustrate the failures of the life we're living in comparison to eternity. This is a dangerous notion, in my view. I agree that we're constantly looking for fulfillment, but I think the solution in this life is the same as the solution for eternity: it is recognizing that this desire is a false desire. Self-fulfillment is a dangerous myth. We find our purpose, peace, and place, both in this life and the next, through selfless care and love for others.

The redemption painted in the first half of Nothing is Wasted is really powerful and good. It's a beautiful picture of eternity accessible now through the love and grace of Jesus Christ. One of the benefits of having a talented, professional writer do this book is that these narratives are incredibly well constructed and thoroughly enjoyable. The downside is that the theology is weak and sporadic and muddles the message. If it were just these first few chapters, I'd recommend the book for anyone, especially those struggling with depression or dealing with loss - Nothing is Wasted can be a real source of comfort - but with the second half of the book tacked on, there really isn't enough positive here for me to recommend it overall.

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