Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Book Review: Amazing Journey, Amazing Grace

Amazing Journey, Amazing GraceKen and Nancy Eirich, in their book Amazing Journey, Amazing Grace: The Incredible Story of How God Led Two Pentecostal Pastors Into the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, tell the story of their lives from childhood, to their marriage, up until their becoming members of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. Their is no doubt that they have both been on an amazing journey. Both come from dysfunctional families with all the psychological trauma that brings. Nancy was constantly abused as a child in almost every way imaginable. Her story is heartrending. Ken’s story is also deeply affecting as he describes his childhood rejection and consequent self-destructive behaviour as he moved into adulthood. It is wonderful to see that both of these people have escaped from the prisons of their past and found love and security in God. My comments below are not intended to detract from that in any way. However, there are some disturbing aspects of their story. An over-reliance on "miracles" The Eirichs constantly claim miraculous intervention in their lives to such an extent that, by the end of the book, the miraculous becomes trivialised. Almost everything good that happens to them is attributed to miraculous intervention by God and anything bad the work of Satan trying to frustrate God’s detailed plan for them. This overemphasis on the miraculous leads to a number of concerns:
  1. Dependence on miracles - throughout the Eirichs’s story, their faith in God rises and falls depending on what happens to them. At times, they question God’s love for them because they can’t see God working miracles for them. On a number of occasions, they describe how they ’needed’ a miracle from God to cope with events in their lives. When people rely on "miracles" to cope, faith will inevitably be fragile. The Bible warns about seeking miracles and, despite the fact that God can work miracles, makes the point that they can be counterfeited. In addition, there are times when the miraculous is used as evidence of truth. Although the Eirichs describe how they studied the Bible when considering SDA doctrine, they make the point that 15 miracles they believe they can list makes them certain that God had led them to the SDA denomination. Most Christians will want to affirm that God is capable of working miracles. But making miracles a central feature of everyday life is bound to end in disappointment eventually. The authors of this book experience disappointment frequently, but they seem very capable of rationalising all events to be either miraculous signs or satanic interference.
  2. Trivialisation of the miraculous - the authors claim they can ’identify 15 indisputable miracles from the Lord that surrounded [them] becoming Seventh-day Adventists’ (p. 207) One was God impressing one of the elders of the Lethbridge Church to put a sandwich sign on the sidewalk advertising the Net ’99 meeting. They write that, unless this person had been obedient to the Lord’s impressing him to do this, it wouldn’t have been there for them to see when they drove down the street. Another alleged miracle is said to be the timing of the Net ’99 program which was delayed at the Lethbridge Church and had to be recorded from the satellite and shown later. They write, ’after a two week delay, things settled down and they decided to go ahead with the series. Interestingly enough, we had not even moved to Lethbridge when the series had been originally scheduled to begin. That two week delay gave the Lord the time necessary to get us moved and lead us to see the sign. Had the church been able to start the series on time, we would have missed the seminar completely!’ (p. 207) One has to wonder why God couldn’t have miraculously got them there on time for the original starting time rather than putting the organisers through so much frustration trying to plan the program! According to the authors, Ken remembering that the Net ’99 program was on was a miracle. And God knew exactly which session they needed to go to because Ken was particularly interested in the topic for that session. And on and on it goes. For a sensitive reader, the question inevitably arises: Why is it that God spends so much time working these trivial miracles (which, admittedly, are important to the authors) when miracles don’t seem to occur in situations where they would seem to be more urgent - war torn areas; people dying from HIV/AIDS; children being abducted from their homes and raped; kids being killed by trees in church yards falling on them (these last two were real events in my local city); women being sold as sex slaves; wives victimised by violent husbands; etc etc etc. That God should spend so much time getting two people to a Net ’99 meeting to persuade them that the SDA Church is the right church seems to be completely unfair when miracles are desperately needed in life and death situations. This leads to the next point.
  3. Egocentric supernaturalism - the way these writers speak, God constantly works miracles for them. But they give no consideration to how all of this intervention works when there are other people in the world. On one occasion, when they were feeling particularly down, they discussed how they would love to have a Thanksgiving dinner which they had missed out on because of them moving from one location to another. Lo and behold, some neighbours knock at the door and invite them to a late Thanksgiving dinner. Why were they having Thanksgiving so late? The people they had originally invited had been ill and couldn’t make it until now. Did God make these people ill so that the Eirichs could have their Thanksgiving dinner when he knew they would want it so badly? If God is manipulating events and providing signs for this couple as frequently as they claim, then God must be manipulating events and people long before the miraculous events occur just for them. What the authors describe as miracle raises a host of theological questions about how God interacts with the world and with people.
A naive view of doctrinal truth The Eirich’s are totally convinced on the absolute, 100% truth of SDA doctrine. They write, ’We believe with all our hearts that we have found a pearl of great price here with the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and are convinced that if there is any church on this planet that has correctly interpreted the Bible, it is the Seventh-day Adventist Church.’ (p. 221) There are, undoubtedly, many SDAs who would agree with them. But even within the denomination, there have been theological controversies over such important issues as their doctrine of the investigative judgment; the interpretation of biblical prophecy; the gospel; and others. Many scholars who are also SDAs have repeatedly shown major problems with some of the doctrinal positions the church holds. No denomination can possibly have a perfect understanding of the Bible - not while the membership is made up of imperfect humans! It is clear that the Eirichs subscribe to a highly conservative version of Seventh-day Adventism. I have read widely across a whole range of denominational literature. My conclusion is that some truth can be found in many denominations and some error in all of them. Although the Eirichs claim to have studied the Bible, a large degree of their certainty seems to be based on experience and alleged miracles. If this is the case, and they are convinced that God has miraculously brought them to the beliefs they hold, how will they be open to the possibility of error in their belief system? Evaluating truth claims on the basis of anything other than an examination of the evidence is a very dangerous thing to do. At one point, Nancy Eirich decided to go onto the internet to see what she could find out about the SDA Church. She turned up a number of sites that were critical of Adventism and its doctrines. She is quite disturbed by what she is reading and decides to call Ken to have a look. As she goes to do this, ’... the Lord spoke audibly to me and told me to stop! The voice of the Lord told me not to be afraid, but to trust Him. He then asked, "What is the fruit these teachings are producing in Ken’s and your life?" To this I confessed, "We are closer to you now than we have ever been. We have a peace I never thought possible, and we ’know that we know’ what we are learning is the Truth, and You have performed many miracles to bring us into the Seventh-day Adventist Church." To this the Lord said, "Follow; don’t lead!" And that is exactly what I decided to do--I would trust the Lord and His leading without doubt or questioning.’ (p. 202) Ironically, she goes on to study what the sites said about Seventh-day Adventists in order to ’satisfy [her] own insatiable curiosity...’. But, of course, if you have made a decision to proceed with no doubts and no questions, it could hardly be a careful evaluation. Obscurity of the gospel Although the title of the book contains the phrase ’Amazing Grace’, the grace in the story is primarily about the way the the Eirichs see God has having worked so many miracles on their behalf, rescuing them from their previous lives, and blessing them by bringing them into the SDA Church. As I have previously said, the liberation from the situations they were in during the early parts of their lives are worthy of celebration. And one most certainly would want to thank God for that. But the amazing grace of the gospel is mostly neglected. There is no clear declaration of the freely provided salvation provided by God’s grace through no more than accepting it by faith. Not only is this amazing grace neglected, but is actually obscured by the emphasis on them joining a denomination which, in their eyes, is the ultimate church on earth. Remnant Church theology The Eirichs clearly believe that the SDA denomination is the one true church. In the epilogue to the book they write, ’At this present time, God has many people in many denominations who truly love Him, but unfortunately the vast majority are being deceived by various systems of false religion. That is why--in these end days--God is calling those who truly love Him out of that system of apostate religion into His true church. And that is exactly what happened to us: God called us out of Babylon (false religion) into His Remnant Church.’ (p. 221) For the authors, the SDA Church is that church. They later go on to say that they ’came out of the Pentecostal Church, not the Catholic Church, but I believe that our zeal for the message of Adventism far surpasses that of many of those who were brought up in the rank and file.’ (p. 221) How’s that?! Not only have they come into the one true church, but they are more zealous than those who were brought up in the movement. This is a very elitist posture to take and highly judgmental. They have found the truth, the one true church, and everyone else lacks zeal and knowledge. How can this lead to anything but arrogance and elitism? Old Covenant orientation There is a distinct Old Covenant orientation to the authors’ beliefs. One of the issues they discuss is their being persuaded that the Mosaic food laws are still in force. In one of the seminars they attended, they ’learned the truth about the importance of God’s dietary laws and the health of our bodies.’ (p.203) Ken was particularly impressed with Isaiah 66:15-17 ’...when he realized how God felt about eating pork!’ (p. 204) After they ’...poured over the evening’s lesson with little excitement...’ and with Ken ’... looking for a loop-hole...’ they came to the conclusion that ’ was all true--meats were still clean and unclean...’ (p. 204) Unfortunately, they overlooked passages in Scripture which make it clear that the Old Covenant Mosaic laws are no longer in force (eg, Hebrews; Galatians). They overlooked Acts 15 where the Mosaic laws are specifically said not to apply to Gentile Christians. They overlooked Mark 7:19 where Jesus declares all foods clean. And so on. In coming to their conclusion in regard to the issue of clean and unclean foods they seem to have taken a proof-text approach with no consideration of historical and cultural context and passages of scripture that explicitly state that the food laws of the Old Testament are no longer binding on Christians. Interventionist God At the beginning of the book, Doug Batchelor, the SDA evangelist from whom they first heard the Adventist message, writes a foreword in which he states that, ’[f]or the true believer nothing is a coincidence. But every apparent coincidence is further evidence of our heavenly father’s intervention in our lives.’ This belief is impossible to sustain in real life. If God were to constantly intervene in everyone’s life the world would be in total chaos (at least from our point of view!). The Bible doesn’t teach a constantly intervening God. Believing that every event is determined by God (whether actively or by allowing it) will ultimately lead to despair, frustration, and often loss of faith because of disappointment. And making decisions by trying to read the "signs" of events on the assumption that God is behind every one of them is also unbiblical. This is dangerous theology and the reader would do well to read some of the excellent Christian literature written on this subject by authors such as Phillip Yancey (Disappointment with God) and Gary Friesen (Decision Making and the Will of God: A Biblical Alternative to the Traditional View). In summary, we can celebrate the freedom that the authors of this book have experienced as they have journeyed out of very painful, traumatic circumstances in their lives. This cannot be underestimated. And it may be that God has, in fact, worked some miracles on their behalf. But the book ultimately becomes focused on persuading the reader that the one true church is the Seventh-day Adventist Church. They conclude their story with a quotation from Ellen G White (the prophetess of the Adventist denomination) who wrote that, ’"It is as certain that we have the truth, as that God lives." We wholeheartedly agree!’ (p. 222) We live in an age where absolute certainty has produced great evil. We are experiencing the results of absolute certainty in the fundamentalist extremism of terrorism, racism, and other forms of hatred in the world today. Arrogant claims that we have the whole truth - that we know we are right - need to be abandoned for respectful dialogue where genuine listening occurs and mutual exchange of wisdom takes place. This can only happen if we are intellectually humble about what we think know. There is nothing wrong with feeling confident in what we believe - that is natural and good. But to arrogantly set oneself up as the possessors of truth to the exclusion of others can only lead to isolation and elitist judgmentalism. So let’s thank God for the fact that the Eirichs now live without the oppression and evil of their early lives. But let’s be careful that we use our God-given minds to think wisely, to test all things, and to hold on to what is good. Most of all, let’s celebrate the amazing grace that God demonstrated in Jesus Christ and his provision of salvation for all. Being led to a denomination is not what Christianity is about. Being led to Jesus is everything it is about.

1 comment:

  1. Praise God that these people where able to find a religion that speaks all truth, and that they are closer to God than they have every been, they have that choice, and freedom.