This is a review of the latter sort. I stumbled across Larry Shallenberger by accident; he's a regular contributor to Burnside Writers Collective (one of my favorite online magazines) and the husband of someone I went to college with. As it happens, we share a publisher, so we got to talking and decided to review one another's books. I fear that I got the better deal out of the arrangement, as in addition to being a regular contributor to BWC, Larry is on the pastoral staff of a megachurch and so influences tens of hundreds of readers, while I write a blog that is read by my mom. So Mom, have I got a book for you.
Divine Intention is a book about love. It says so right in the book, in one of the more delightfully audacious printed statements I've read in a long time. You'd not necessarily figure out right away that this is a book about love--Larry buries the lead on page 46, and his publisher buries this theme under the perhaps more saleable veneer of a book on the ancient church in contemporary perspective, or, in other words, a book on the book of Acts. But Larry effectively makes the case that the book of Acts itself is a book about love, and if this is a book about that, then this is a book about that too.
Larry takes us through the book of Acts, not systematically but episodically, looking at passages that show a particular act of divine intervention. Acts has a lot of them, from the Day of Pentecost that sent the church out into Judea, to the great persecution that martyred Stephen but sent Philip into Samaria, to the conversion of Paul that ushered the church further out to the ends of the earth. This is not new news; Acts is a well-traveled New Testament book by exegetes of every stripe. Larry is a keen reader of key texts, however, and catches things that I, for one, failed to notice even after he stuck the passage right in front of me. He takes us on an interesting interpretive turn by asking why God intervenes in Acts where he does. As it happens, God intervenes because he is relational, and the relationship of God to his people demands it.
So Jesus warns his followers to expect the Spirit, and on Pentecost the Spirit comes. Stephen rehearses the story of Israel and faces his martyrdom with the assurance that his God is with him, that suffering and even death are not the end of his story. Philip and Peter hear from God that he loves them and that he loves people they might not otherwise think to love. Paul hears from God and is given a dramatic life change and a sober calling. Paul hears again from God in the wake of a strained relationship and finds renewed strength for his mission. God keeps showing that he is there, keeps showing his love for his people.
This is a more radical take on Acts than Larry's gentle writing voice would suggest. He has to be gentle; Larry is a pastor, and he's had to deal with some particularly icky stuff in a few of the churches he's served. He handles these troubles delicately and respectfully--pastorally, I suppose you could say. He rarely strays from his pastoral deckings, to be frank, in the preponderance of talk of "the abundant life," in the tight outline that steers the book, even in the fictitious narratives that lead each chapter.
The character Jonah, a struggling young pastor, is written in the first person as he recounts a monthly encounter with two long-lost friends, each of whom has drifted away from the joy of their earlier life in Christ. This itself is a nice metaphor for the way we so often approach the book of Acts: when we're disillusioned with the church of the twenty-first century--whether for its world-shaking scandals or its petty annoyances--we revisit Acts as a reminder of what the Christian faith once was and perhaps ought to be. But because Jonah is a pastor, and frankly because Jonah is Larry, he can't really haul back and freak out on anybody in the way that I occasionally wished he would. The pastoral garb is a bit of a straitjacket on the energy of the book--probably an appropriate straitjacket; Lord knows I'm not called to the pastorate. I'm also, if I may be so bold, mystified why the fictional narrative, which seems to be working its way to an inevitable resolution, never resolves. Sometimes I think we all need to take a short break--just a short one, mind you--from Donald Miller.
Larry's pastoral reserve notwithstanding, the book is audacious in the way good books ought to be audacious. Right there in the introduction, in the roman-numeral pages so that the heresy-hunters won't be offended by it, is an audacious confession followed by an audacious idea:
Love is the pinnacle of Christian teaching. However, the church has historically evaluated its biblical teachers with a yardstick of doctrinal purity. Little attention has been given to whether or not the teaching inspires greater love in the teaching's listeners. Historically, heretics have been identified by their corrupted ideas. However, if we take Paul seriously, perhaps heresy should rather be measured in terms of love.
What's good for Paul is good for the book of Acts, a love story from start to finish. It's good for us today as well, Larry goes on to show, as we find in Acts not a checklist for being a good Christian but signs and wonders from God that show us how to live well and prepare us for the cost of discipleship--which is to say, they show us how to love.
I would just like to acknowledge that I used the word audacious four times in one paragraph above, which was on purpose, despite the obvious arguments against such an obnoxious repetition.