Monday, January 11, 2010

Heaven Misplaced (Review)

This is the second of Douglas Wilson's books that I have reviewed. And I'm happy to say this is a much better book. However, he makes some methodological choices that hurt his argument and toward the end of the book he has lost his flow of coherency. But his project of historical optimism is a good one, I just wish he'd spend more time unpacking it.

The book is a very reformed reading of Kingdom theology. That is he is developing a theology about the concept of God's reign, its implications for Christian life and thought, from a reformed position. In fact he imagines a more dispensational view of history as an opposing view. Several times I truly agreed with his conclusions but would never have tackled the issue in the way that he does. In many cases his evaluation of theological problems is simply not sustained enough to get the reader where he wants them to go. This is important because of his methodological choices.

Early on Wilson asks us to read this book as if it were a story, that is suspending out judgment until it is done. That would be great if he were telling a story, but his style is polemics - he is arguing. So this tactic is not helpful, it sets up the reader to expect a piece of exploratory theology only to serve up a completely different dish. As a reader this was disappointing, a missed opportunity on Wilson's part.

The other methodological problem I have is one of target audience. This book is definitely written to a popular audience. It comes complete with bible studyish questions on each chapter. It also has some nice break out definitions (and while he does some nice defining, every now and then he drops something in without really explaining it) that are aimed to help the reader who might not have a theological or historical background. The reason this is disappointing to me is that I think he has some good insights and I'd like to see more of his underlying thoughts. For example, he tries to expand our notions of atonement, but his clear bias towards penal substitution are resoundingly clear. What is worse, he introduces alternate views and never pursues them - perhaps he doesn't know how/where they fit?

Despite these weaknesses, I did enjoy the book. He does a good job re-interpreting the classic "end times" texts. And he also does a good job making the Kingdom of God a central theme in his theology. I give this book 2.5 stars out of 5.

[EDIT] One of the things I forgot to mention about this book is that Wilson is entirely too triumphalistic. His project of historic optimism should be more invitational than it is. A good example of this is how he deals with ecological issues, in short he doesn't. And the very critique he levels against eco-theology also applies to his own theology that has a distinct and privileged view of our species (although I think this is not a true assessment of much eco-theology). Here he resorts to substitutionary atonement as the paradigm of choice and basically says our only task, as the Church, is to make disciples of the nations. A fine claim, but he fails to unpack it adequately. And he also fails to note what implications disciple making has on self-identity. It is almost like he wants to push the envelope, but only so far. I think the whole envelope needs to be remade from scratch (there is my bias). It also struck me as odd that in this whole project he doesn't once tackle the chief objection - theodicy. What we end up with is a repackaged (Christianized) version of human progress when it seems to me that is the last thing he really wants to do.

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