In his first two books, Lee Harmon took a creative approach to biblical interpretation. Rather than a usual commentary, he wrote stories set in the days of the beginning of Christianity. Through these stories, he illustrated how the gospel of John and the book of Revelation may have come to be written. Both books are enjoyable as stories and provide historical context. They also hint at (sometimes more than hint at) Lee’s form of liberal Christianity.
Lee has a new book, The River of Life, in which he seeks to better explain what liberal Christians, such as himself, believe about the Bible and Jesus. This book is short and personal. It is also engaging and a good read.
The first chapter is a discussion of heaven and hell. This chapter is strong, but also points to the problems and challenges of such a book. As I read I found myself in agreement with much of it, as Lee sought to show that the common conservative, and traditional, view of eternal conscious torment is not the best supported view in the Bible. Yet many non-liberals would agree with Lee’s case here. Certainly the traditional view still holds sway in much of “conservative” Christianity but there is much more diversity then Lee seems to allow.
This is even more apparent which begins with a paragraph describing “conservative” Christianity as holding to dispensational theology (think Left Behind). While holding a non-traditional view of hell may lead to ostracism in many conservative circles, there is much more diversity on the topic of Jesus’ return. You can find conservatives all over the spectrum. The seminary I attended was very conservative but few professors (perhaps none) had time for rapture nonsense. You can find conservatives who hold to all sorts of views from preterism to amillennialism.
Lee clearly paints with a broad brush, a necessity of a book under 100 pages. And Lee is very hopeful, looking for people on both sides of the liberal-conservative divide to reach across and join hands for the greater good. Yet if Lee is looking for fundamentalists of the variety he often targets (those who hold to Left Behind theology, for example) to embrace him, he is destined for disappointment. If he hopes to find friends among other conservatives, perhaps there is more cause for hope.
When I read what Lee writes about the Good News, the Historical Jesus and other topics, I find a lot to applaud. I also find things to disagree with. For example, Lee talks about the gospel emphasis on making life better on this side of the grave. I agree wholeheartedly with this. While Lee does not deny that the Bible speaks about an afterlife, he is skeptical about the existence of such. I would respond that it is both – for as much as salvation is about this world, there is great hope for the next world too. And while Lee is right in being critical of Christians who solely wish to be whisked away to heaven, I’d bet it is Christians with a strong view in an afterlife who have done the most good in this world. It makes me think of a CS Lewis quote, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”
For me, the hope and trust that God will complete our work, that the breaking in of the kingdom of God is not solely based on human effort, is motivation to work for it all the more. Perhaps this is another place where Lee and I would differ – we both want to work for the kingdom of God in this life, but I have faith that this work will be completed whether we fail to reach the goal in our lives or not. Of course, at the end of the book Lee speaks about God helping us in our work. So maybe even here there is hope for agreement, enough agreement to get to work, that is!
Like I said above, there is a lot to agree with and disagree with in this book, as well as a lot to think about. Many conservative Christians will throw this book out the window, deeming it as errant theology and liberal drivel. If that is all you get from it though, that is unfortunate. I hope you see a good book written by a man with a heart to bring Jesus’ vision to fruition in this world. Heart is the right word, in this book we see Lee’s heart. So maybe we disagree on theology and doctrine; we disagree on things in our head. But if we can agree on our heart, that is a step in the right direction.