Monday, December 06, 2004

Word on the Street: Tryin' Real Hard to be The Shepherd

("Word on the Street" is the working title of the book reviews department at Gower Street.)

A review of RealLivePreacher.com by Gordon Atkinson. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans. 2004. 165pp. $14. paper.

If you were waiting for a connecting flight in the Comair Terminal at Cincinnati International Airport a few weeks ago and saw a largish, bearded, thirty-something man weeping openly, it was me. If you were able to muster the courage not to shuffle off uncomfortably, you would have seen that I held a copy of RealLivePreacher.com in my hand. More than most any I can remember, this book has been able to move me effortlessly to laughter and tears.

Gordon Atkinson has a gift. He writes about faith and life in the church and the world in such disarmingly honest, loving detail, that you almost can't help but be moved and caught up in the story. His is the voice of someone who has been through Hell, but not back; it seems more to me that he has come out the other side and kept going.

He grew up in a Christian home -- not a precious moments, unread Family Bible, Christmas-and-Easter-whether we-need-it-or-not, by-God-we-drive-a-Buick sort of Christian home, but the real deal: loving, giving, challenging, nurturing. He experienced some real crises as a young man and nearly walked away from his faith; he talks about it in the book, and it is one of the most moving entries there. In the wake of this soul-searching, he committed himself to living the Christian faith as honestly and faithfully as he could, despite his doubts. (I think one of the reasons I love this is because it fights against the notion that Christianity is primarily about believing certain propositions.)

The other entries -- calling them "essays" sounds too formal -- include recollections of people he has met, dramatized readings from the Bible, and goings-on in his church. (Did I mention that Atkinson is pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in San Antonio? If I were a Baptist, and lived in Texas, I would find a way to join, quick.(I am also reminded that, like most preachers and pastors in the world, Atkinson has a day job, too, working at his computer web design business.)) In these pages you will meet Rabbi Jonah; Gordon's daughters; the blue shoes girl; Deacon George, who had AIDS and introduced a new element into communion; Christina, Jenny, and Everett Joseph Smith; you will even meet the Moon. And I suspect in all of this you might also meet God. At heart, these are spiritual reflections, told in parables and metaphors, never disembodied or abstract, never smoothing over the rough parts of the faith, and never presuming to speak for anyone other than himself.

The writings in this book originated on his blog Real Live Preacher, which I have linked to since the first days of Gower Street, and heartily encourage you to visit as soon as possible. I actually discovered his blog through an Eerdmans catalog which announced the book coming out, so I guess I learned about the blog through a book which is from the blog: Wheels within wheels. Either way, I'm glad I found it.

Virtually anyone would benefit from this book. Those inside the church might benefit from one man's honest voice and dogged "nevertheless" in the face of doubts and trials. Those outside the church might benefit from seeing that our faith is not about haircuts and b.s.. Everyone could do with a dose of the Preacher's self-effacing love. Several people on my Christmas list will be getting copies this year.

My only hesitation in any way about this book is that the author is not only a Real Live Preacher, but a Real Live Baptist. That is to say that sometimes he contrasts "the church" with God's creation in ways that seem too simple to me. Baptists always have a healthy suspicion of tradition and institutions (which may explain why they start so many, I don't know). As an Anglican, I'm not nearly as suspicious of institutions -- or I guess I should say that I am not only suspicious of them. If God called Israel as his own, if the incarnation is true and God "entered" our world in Jesus Christ, then why might God not also call the church as his own, in a way analogous to Israel, but not as unambiguous as Jesus? And even though we often seem more like clowns than saints, we still can't have the church without some institution. There's a lot more to say here, but I don't want the paragraph of criticism to be too long, because I love this book and think you should read it.

In the end, I thought Julius' final line from the movie Pulp Fiction was an appropriate title, because The Preacher is trying real hard to be the shepherd; so should we all.

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Blogger Jane Ellen+ said...

I discovered Real Live Preacher about 18 months ago, while I was in CPE--noodling around online by way of coping with Level I Trauma stress. I was hooked from day one.

This book is on my Christmas list.

Thursday, December 09, 2004 7:41:00 PM  

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