A Heretic's Guide to Eternity A Heretic's Guide to Eternity

Spencer Burke and Barry Taylor
ISBN 9780787983598 (0787983594)
Jossey-Bass, 2006
£14.99

Category: Emerging Church & Postmodern Faith
Reviewed by: Phil Groom

If nothing else, you have to love this book for its cover. There are so many Christian books out there which you wouldn't be seen dead with — but this one has it: a cover with street cred, a provocative cover that makes you want to be seen with it on the tube, on the bus, wherever you are. Excellent.

There is, of course, far more to this book than its cover — so much more, in fact, that it's hard to know where to start. I'm tempted just to say Yes, yes, YES! Buy this book! — because this is a book that connects so well with my own spiritual journey: an increasingly deep dissatisfaction with formulaic faith, prepackaged beliefs and organised church. Breath of fresh air doesn't even begin to say it: Burke's approach to faith is more like an encounter with a whirlwind, a tornado blasting its way through the dogmas and doctrines so many of us have grown used to, tearing up the old religion by its roots and turning that world upside down to land, at last, right side up.

The scene is set in the introduction, pp.xv - xxvi: don't skip it or you'll miss some key points on where the book's coming from and where it's going. The reality we're up against in today's world is that people have seen through the facade: Christianity hasn't cured all the world's ills, and in some cases it — or rather its self-proclaimed adherents — have made things worse. As Brian McLaren puts it in his foreword, "There's a grim historical track record of religious inebriation that, like drunk driving, has taken or ruined too many lives already." (p.vii).

But other religions haven't fared any better, and nor has secularism: the emperor truly does have no clothes. And yet — and yet: there's a persistent awareness that there has to be something more to life than the physical, than the things that technology and science and psychology can offer: people are "looking for answers, and seeking to build new types of relationships with each other and the divine." (pp.xxi-xxii).

The book has nine chapters split between three sections (yes, that's three chapters per section) plus four "Interludes" which give a brief snapshot of heresy in history and the church's responses — not a pretty picture. Within each section, the first chapter opens up the issue under scrutiny; the second chapter takes it apart; and the third attempts to put things back together from a fresh perspective. I'm probably too far gone to offer an objective assessment, but the way I read it, Burke isn't offering us heresy here: on the contrary, he's breaking free from the heresy that mainstream Christianity has degenerated into down the centuries — Jesus came to give people life and liberty, whereas the church that's grown up around his name offers guilt, enslavement to impossible beliefs and threats of postmortem torment for anyone who dares to dissent.

Section 1, "Questioning Grace: The Future of Faith" deconstructs religion as we've come to know it, examining what we've got and working out why it no longer works. A quote from Bono, U2, sets the stage: "I don't see Jesus as being in any part of a religion. Religion is the temple after God has left it."

Section 2, "Questioning What We Know: New Horizons of Faith" examines the failure and inadequacies of institutionalised religion and asks whether or not we need church anymore. It's as if, says Burkes, the church has become "the post office in an e-mail world" (p.132) — not quite obsolete, but certainly not up to speed for daily use.

Section 3, "Living in Grace: Mystical Responsibility" looks ahead to what a more free-form faith might look like in practice, developing the concept of "Mystical Responsibility" as a new way of living in relational faith. "Mystical responsibility," Burke explains, "is a radically different take on what a relationship with God in this world can look like. Whereas traditional religion and institutional churches stress holding certain beliefs, mystical responsibility emphasises living in faith." (p.216). And in the end, it's all about grace: God's grace, God's love, reaching out to us.

Burke never abandons Scripture: throughout the book he's constantly referring not only to contemporary culture but to the Bible — not as a blunt instrument to beat his readers into submission but rather as a sounding board, bouncing off his own ideas, comparing what Christianity has become to what it ought to be if it truly followed Jesus' teachings. Jesus wins, as the master heretic: following Jesus is the call to heresy. And, if we're following him in both Spirit and in truth, most likely to crucifixion at the hands of established religion...

If you know what you believe, and why; if you're satisified with that kind of faith; then this is not the book for you. If, on the other hand, you have more questions than answers; if the prefabricated faith handed down by church councils, authorities and so-called experts no longer satisfies, then this, most certainly, is the book for you. Read it and you will know that you are not on your own: heresy — the willingness and the determination to challenge the status quo of religous dogma — is alive and well. Long may it continue.

From p.48:
Maybe the greatest gift the Christian religion can offer the world right now is to remove itself from the battle for God. Perhaps it's time to release the claim to universal privilege it grants itself as the only "true religion". I realise that this may sound mad to some people, but I trust that others will be excited by the prospect of encountering the message of Jesus without the baggage of brand Christianity.

Phil Groom, November 2006

Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.

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