2 Stars Out Of 5
What happened to the Person?
July 8, 2013
As an evangelical, I was quite amazed that a Wheaton College graduate would choose to lowercase "holy spirit," but after a few pages realized that the author has left his evangelicalism behind, for early on he assures the reader that "I'll ask you to recognize that the breath in you is spirit-breath . . . You'll learn that simplicity is essential to learning to breathe again." This sort of writing, this fuzzy brand of academic/devotional fluff that sounds like it belongs on a Hallmark card, is familiar to me, as I watched it mesmerize the liberal churches thirty years ago, and apparently is now the rage at colleges that used to be reliably evangelical. (Those colleges are likewise playing "catch-up" on feminism, homosexuality, the environment, etc.)
I must admit up-front that I am amazed this was written by a Wheaton College alumnus, given Wheaton's reputation for being solidly evangelical. Choosing to lowercase "holy spirit" is something that would get the attention of a college sophomore who has never actually been exposed to rich theology and would not recognize it if she saw it. The author's explanation of this quirk is, frankly, nonsense, unless the reader is gullible enough to assume that the author really does understand Greek and Hebrew better than the thousands of other Bible scholars who have chosen to cap "Holy Spirit." According to the author, "every interpreter, myself included, should preserve the magnificence and the breadth of the breath that animates all people." He doesn't provide a clue as to why lowercasing "holy spirit" preserves the "magnificence," since if something is magnificent we would be more inclined to cap it. I suspect that the lowercasing of "spirit" is a marketing gimmick - i.e, he and the publisher thought it would hook some trendy readers' attention - imagine, a book on the third Person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit - and the author lowercases it! Not being of a gimmicky nature, I found it tedious and pretentious.
Much more disturbing is that the author departs from two thousand years of Christian tradition in claiming that the Spirit (I choose to cap it myself, thanks) "animates all people," for the Bible makes it clear that it animates God's people, i.e., Christians., which is why Paul refers to the "Spirit of adoption" (Rom 8:15) that makes believers into sons and daughters of God. In fact, though the book does not precisely deny that the Spirit is a Person, the book wanders into the vague "spiritual but not religious" territory that so many people inhabit today, with this sense that something "spiritual" is going on at any time of heightened emotion. Typical of the liberal view of God, the book doesn't present Christians being "filled with" the Spirit nor in any sort of intimate bond with the Spirit - the spirit serves merely as a tag for "I really felt something - must be the spirit!" Typical of liberal theology, this spirit tends to nudge people into activism for liberal causes. (FYI: the author wrote a blatantly pro-gay editorial for the very liberal Huffington Post in November 2012, urging the people in Maine, Washington, and Minnesota to "vote their conscience" by approving of same-sex "marriage" in those states. In the article his interpretation of Paul's Letter to the Romans, which contains a much-quoted passage condemning homosexuality, is completely unorthodox and completely approving of homosexuality.)
I did manage to suffer through to the end. The book takes a close look at some Bible passages that refer to the Spirit, but the author ventures far from sound theology, as the examples I referred to earlier demonstrate. Aside from this, the writing is generally dry, and the author's frequent attempts to wax poetic seem forced - no doubt the result of assuming that a roomful of nineteen-year-olds will hang on his every word. The personal anecdotes become annoying also. I suppose these are attempts to prove to the reader that the author is a "regular guy" as well as an academic genius, but in a book on the Spirit, I would prefer that the author get himself completely off the stage and focus on the real subject. Autobiographies of ex-evangelical professors do not interest me, but the Spirit definitely does.
If you are a charismatic/Pentecostal Christian, or are at least "open" about the gifts of the Spirit, you will be amazed at what the book does NOT cover. A book the Spirit with no reference to speaking in tongues? Healing? Prophecy? I am not a charismatic myself, yet I was frankly horrified that book on the Spirit, even one by a liberal academic, could ignore the gifts of the Spirit. It says a great deal about the author's background (PhD from the ultra-liberal Duke Divinity School) that this key area of theology goes unexplored. And, curiously he devotes a huge amount of space to the Spirit in the story of Daniel - despite the fact that the Book of Daniel makes no direct reference to the Holy Spirit.
If you want a good book on the Holy Spirit, plenty are available, and, thankfully, they all capitalize Holy Spirit because they regard the Spirit as a Person, the third Person of the Trinity, and a Person with whom a Christian relates, not just some vague "feeling" that something "spiritual" or "inspired" is taking place, as if watching a pretty sunset is an experience of "the spirit." Some of the books I list here are academic in nature, some more laity-oriented. The most readable for the non-theologian, naturally, is Billy Graham's The Holy Spirit: Activating God's Power in Your Life, also R. A. Torrey's classic The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit. If you want something written more recently, Francis Chan's Forgotten God is quite good, and Chan is an academic who does not write like an academic. R. C. Sproul's The Mystery of the Holy Spirit is brief and, like all Sproul's books, excellent and highly readable, ditto for John Stott's Baptism and Fullness: The Work of the Holy Spirit Today. J. Rodman Williams was one of the best writers in the charismatic tradition, and his book Salvation, the Holy Spirit, and Christian Living is a classic, along with Chuck Smith's Living Water. All these authors wrote with a view to explaining (within the limitation of human language, obviously) what the Bible and the Christian tradition teach about the Spirit. Levison's book, alas, is typical of so many books written by doubting "evangelicals" who have one foot (as he admits) in the mainline/liberal camp (also married to a committed feminist), and they write with the goal of being loved and accepted by that camp, despite it being obvious that the liberal churches long ago chose not to accept the Bible "as is," but to use it as merely a tool in their liberal social agenda, and whose theology tends to be loosely "spiritual but not religious." Religious authors inevitably go amiss when the aim of their writings is to curry favor with a particular audience, for the goal of any book claiming to be Christian is to glorify God and enable the reader to grow in love with him. I hope this won't sound harsh, but in all honesty I never got the slightest hint in this Levison book that the author had ever himself had a real encounter with the Spirit, which perhaps lies at the root of his lowercasing the word. I don't know if he will succeed in his aim to be the liberal churches' "go-to guy" on the subject of the Spirit, but this book can have no appeal to any evangelical with a serious interest in this important subject, especially when there are so many other fine books. The author's outspokenly liberal views on homosexuality and other issues should deter any reader who takes the Bible seriously.