God is Good – How We Get There

Just over a year ago, I raised the question – Walter Brueggemann‘s question, actually – “Is God ‘A Recovering Practitioner of Violence’?” It was a provocative question he raised in Atlanta during one of the original Emergent Village theological conversations. The esteemed Old Testament scholar was raising questions about our neat & tidy ways of trying to sweep God’s messy history under the rug; his concern was that many who profess the loudest to be “Bible-believers” are least familiar with its contents. He was not calling the faithful to abandon the witness of Scripture, contra an Ehrman or Spong; rather, he was suggesting we embrace Holy Writ with all its pain. (And if you read the text, there is pain.)

This original post stirred a lot of thoughtful commentary, as well as some rabid denunciation among some Christian fiction writers (of all folks) – earning me my own TAG at Rebecca Miller’s blog, where as far as I know they’re still praying for my wayward soul. 🙂

Today a thoughtful blog reader named Mark chimed in with a question of his own:

Hey everybody, I know I’m reading this a year after the fact so maybe nobody will see this. But if so, I’ve just got a question or two.

I listened to the Brueggemann talks a couple of years ago. He’s one of my favorite authors/speakers. However, the more I’ve thought about his ‘God as a recovering practitioner of violence’, the more I’ve been disturbed (I guess that was his purpose, so that’s fine). I’m o.k. with being disturbed.

The main thing I’m wanting to ask everybody who was posting here toward the end is do you pray? If so, what do you say to a God who may be capricious, violent, arbitrary, etc.? What do you say, good and bad?

The other comment I have is that I just finished reading N.T. Wright’s NTPG, JVG, and RSG books. Actually, as he says, ‘as a matter of history’ it does seem to be highly likely that Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead. For me, this means atheism is not a viable option. How does everyone feel about this? Have you read these books?

Also, I ask many of these tough questions that you are asking very regularly but also wonder what moral high ground I can stand on to put God on trial. Is this reasonable?

Thanks for the discussion!

Mark’s is an excellent question that really brings things home: How, and to whom, do we pray (if we pray)? I think that all of us, regardless of what we’ve argued about in the original post, want to say we’re praying to an unambiguously good God. Even Walter B. would probably affirm this. Now, I think that questioning God’s goodness is one of the deepest struggles of faith for many of us, especially in contemporary times – I mean, theodicy is a b!tc#, right?

What many of us simply cannot go back to is what I call the Juggling Trapeze Artist version of God; this is where we juggle all of these conflicting biblical and experiential portraits of God, swinging from one pendulum to the other, desperately trying to make them form one coherent portrait. No – if we’re to be people of the book, we need more honesty and integrity than this – rightly dividing the word of truth, or what have you.

In my experience, most people who have a mature, stable, first-hand relationship with God know instinctively that God is good. This often comes in spite of, not because of, the theology they’re taught in church, on television, or the radio. But if we’ve settled God’s goodness in our hearts, it seems to me that there are several options out there to settle this in our heads:

1.) What Brueggemann and others (notably Jack Miles) seem to be advocating for, at least here: An evolutionary understanding of God. God develops, God grows, God changes. This idea is at the heart of the debate between Greco-Roman Theism and Open (or Process) theology – too much to hash through here. Suffice it to say for these considerations, just because God may have ordered genocide at one point in time (as the text says he did) and prohibits even ethnic judgement at a future time (as Jesus seems to in the later text), one can say that God grows without implying that earlier stages of development were sinful – for God or humanity. To put it another way: Sin, like Covenant, is not a static absolute, but rather a moving target based on increasing spheres of empathy and maturity.

2.) Another angle to come at this would be to posit a changeless God who nonetheless accommodated himself to immature-but-developing cultural mores. This is difficult to apply in actual practice – when in the text God insists that people wipe out women and children, or (perhaps more disturbing) to save virgins for mating…really? But one can do some comparative analysis with nearby cultures and conclude that God is gradually pushing his chosen people out of the nest of violent ethnocentrism by fully entering into & communicating from that world. Hence John Calvin wrote that ‘crude’ images of God are “often ascribed to him in Scripture, are easily refuted. For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.”

3.) A variation on this theme would be to apply the apostle Paul’s “we see in part, we prophesy in part” to the writings of Scripture itself. When looking for traces of God’s presence and speaking in our lives, “we see through a glass darkly” – a glass colored by our history, culture, and indeed prejudices. So the children of Israel and various biblical redactors ‘heard’ God say some atrocious things that God could not have said if we is the Father of Jesus Christ who loves indiscrimately and forgives enemies. One can in this way read Scripture as a conversation – yea, an argument – with itself over which interpretation of God will prevail: a vision of God-as-power that serves the interests of the already-powerful, or God-as-Love who empties himself and serves the lowly? (Brian McLaren develops this Scripture-as-conversation perspective in his A New Kind of Christianity. This view is appealing in that it posits an all-good, changeless God and let’s God off the hook for any of the unsavory stuff we see in the Old Testament – and presumably, the New as well. But then, critics will assert, Where does this stop? Do we simply edit out everything that makes us uncomfortable? Does this make us better than 21st century Marcionites? But proponents of this perspective would be quick to suggest a New Covenant hermenutic, starting with Jesus’ own “Moses said to you _____, but I say to you…”

So there we have it. Either 1.) God changes for God’s sake, 2.) God changes for humanity’s sake, or 3.) God is changeless but humanity is increasingly adept at apprehending a fuller revelation of God’s character. To me any of these visions can be held with integrity, and would result in a good God worthy of trust and worship.

What strikes me, further, is that all of these are valid options, and that all of these are problematic. I think as the Church we ought not micro-manage people’s opinions about these different ways of processing the goodness and character of God; rather, we should be places that can hold all of these images of God in abeyance, as we worship and pray together.

Recommended Reading (covering the gamut of these perspectives):

Anything by Rene Girard

A Sociable God: Toward a New Understanding of ReligionKen Wilber

A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that are Transforming the FaithBrian McLaren

Christ: A Crisis in the Life of GodJack Miles

Discovering the God ImaginationJonathan Brink

From Eternity to HereFrank Viola

God Christ Church: A Practical Guide to Process Theology – Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki (minibook here)

Saving Paradise: How Christians Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire – Rita Brock & Rebecca Parker

The Bible as Improv: Seeing and Living the Script in New WaysRon Martoia

The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in CrisisJeremy Rifkin

The Hidden Face of GodRichard Elliot Friedman

The Human Faces of God – Thom Stark (see also his booksiteReligion at the Margins)

The Misunderstood God: The Lies Religion Tells About GodDarin Hufford

This is My Beloved Son – Hear Him! and Is There a Covenant of Grace? – articles by Jon Zens

23 Responses to “God is Good – How We Get There”

  1. 1 Joe Machuta December 10, 2010 at 3:19 pm

    God of necessity is eternal and, we of necessity are first and foremost temporal. This is the great paradox between spiritual eternity land linear time. If one believes in the existence of the eternal it is necessary to transcend temporal judgment.

    However, if we are people of the book… I’m not sure we should be… however. if we are, we should at least be honest enough to concede that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to explain eternal things in temporal understanding.

    Frankly, I think this is precisely why Jesus taught a strictly redemptive hermeneutic. If one adopts a solely redemptive view of scripture the temporal descriptions and explanations can be discarded when they do not coincide with what we have evolved to spiritual eternal awareness.

    Why do we allow the few evangelicals to bully the many?

  2. 2 Ted December 10, 2010 at 3:21 pm

    What if, in our desire to affirm God’s goodness, we are really saying our “yes” to life — giving voice to our intuition that regardless of the litany of pain and anguish and injustice we can drag as evidence into the cosmic court, there’s still a sense that all is not lost, that the universe is not in vain?

    Of course we think our affirmation also reaches something “out there,” that there exists something we can rightfully call “God” to which we can meaningfully ascribe a concept like “good.” But we don’t know this for certain. What we do know is that this is a strong language by which we can say “yes.”

    Riffing on what Sonja wrote above, a “good” god for a Bronze Age warrior tribal people is a warrior like themselves, one who fights with them and for them calls them special. We are rightfully uncomfortable with this sense of the “good,” so we wrestle with what our “yes” means in this day and age.

    As Mike knows, I have a weak (nigh unto nonexistet) God-concept. But I’m willing to say “yes.”

    And come on, no love for Jack Caputo’s The Weakness of God in your book list? Mark Johnston’s Saving God is another interesting look at similar problems.

  3. 3 Dan December 10, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    “I think as the Church we ought not micro-manage people’s opinions about these different ways of processing the goodness and character of God; rather, we should be places that can hold all of these images of God in abeyance, as we worship and pray together.”

    Amen Brother!

  4. 4 brianjgorman December 10, 2010 at 4:34 pm

    I’m not entirely sure those 3 are the only viable options. From a Christian standpoint, it would make sense that the writers of the OT had a limited understanding of God simply because Jesus had not appeared yet. Therefore, it makes much more sense that they would have understood the violence they engaged in as God-directed.

    Yet the fundamental earth-shattering truth about Jesus is that he reveals God’s nature fully–Philippians 2 (“Although” can also be translated “Because”)–so it’s in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection that we learn *how* God works, not just nonviolently, but anti-violently, accepting violence onto Godself on behalf of the world. It’s quite telling that Paul, a devout Jew, sees the death and resurrection of Jesus as a logical outgrowth of who God is and consequently forces Paul to reinterpret all of the Hebrew Scriptures. I think it’s entirely possible to read the OT with this lens and understand the violence in it quite differently.

    My point is that it’s not simply a matter of how *we* wrap our heads around seeming tensions in views of God, but that NT Scripture has already begun that work.

    This is similar to point #3, but I think one can hold this view without believing “humanity is increasingly adept at apprehending a fuller revelation of God’s character.” I think we may understand God differently than the first Christians, but “better” is an iffy word. Presumably, a better understanding would lead to a better application; I’d be hard pressed to say that humanity is any better at following Christ than they ever were.

  5. 5 roy donkin December 10, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    there is a companion question… is God all-powerful? It may be that God is good… all the time but God is not always able to exercise that goodness.

    Thinking specifically about Mark’s question regarding prayer. Are there some prayers that God cannot directly answer? If that is so, then God changes from being the one who can fix anything (or not as God chooses) to one who hears the cries of our hearts and sometimes can only cry along with us.

  6. 6 Jonathan Brink December 10, 2010 at 5:33 pm

    It’s interesting that the question does really come down to Good and Evil. In trying to understand God we use a subjective evidence to determine what is good. Good and Evil is the dividing line of our experience of reality.

    This is the argument I wrestle with in my book. Can the experience of evil change what is good to evil. The most provocative verse in Scripture to me is ,”The man has now become like one of us…” God reveals the experience or knowledge of evil. We assume that what happens in circumstance can actually change God’s original distinction of good. And it can’t.

  7. 7 Jasmin December 10, 2010 at 5:42 pm

    Nice articulation of some possible ways to think about the goodness of God. You know I’ve had trouble with that Brueggemann question ever since I heard it years ago…And Ted, I especially like what you said about saying “yes” to life. Thanks guys!

  8. 8 ed cyzewski December 10, 2010 at 10:32 pm

    Excellent summary of the various perspectives Mike. I have two observations to add.

    1. I think it’s great that you create room for dialogue and discussion by presenting some possible options and not trying to make any of them exclusive or whatever. I think this is an example of good theology, helping folks sort through the issues and prayerfully arrive at answers in their own communities.

    2. One of the reasons why I like your open approach to this is because when we start saying, “God can’t be like X” in relation to these questions, we could be stepping beyond the bounds of not only our knowledge but our place int his world. I appreciated the last question in the quoted section about our ability to find the moral high ground in relation to God. That reminds me of Paul reminding his readers that they are in no position to put God on trial. Job found the same thing out as well.

  9. 9 Ted December 10, 2010 at 10:47 pm

    Exactly, Ed. Who are we to say God exists or doesn’t exist? 😉

  10. 10 Perry-McCormick December 10, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    Hi Mike. Perhaps it could be a hybrid of all 3 options or the simple answer is God seems to change as we change (or don’t change). While we are talking (& hopefully thinking), why is it that in this discussion of the violent God of the OT no one mentions the times in the records of kings & judges (where most folks fall asleep 🙂 ), the Hebrews are counseled to repeatedly avoid bloodshed?… that doesn’t get much press. As a reward for doing God’s will, they were given years of peace. God’s over arching goal in the narrative was always peace. Also, as we know, history is written by the victors. How do you absolve yourself as a people from genocide? A healthy dose of God’s will?? The scripture ISN’T God but a reflection of a people’s idea of God. If God is God, G-d is ultimately powerful and ultimately good. The Hebrew word for “perfection” in the Bible is not our meaning, it is “complete”. Wouldn’t it be great it G_d is Complete and continually completing his/her/its creation??

  11. 11 Donnie December 11, 2010 at 8:00 pm

    I would add to the list of Recommended Reading anything by James Alison http://jamesalison.co.uk/. Contemplation and Monotheism: On the Indispensability of Irrelevance http://jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng01.html and Worship in a Violent World http://jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng13.html seem to me to be particularly relevant to the question of prayer, both in it’s personal private and public corporate aspects.

  12. 13 Matt-Phillips December 13, 2010 at 9:00 pm

    Well, I’ve been reluctant to post thus-far, but can’t resist any longer… the discussion is just too good. I spent like 4 hours the other night reading through the previous blog & comments (https://zoecarnate.wordpress.com/2009/11/21/is-god-a-recovering-practitioner-of-violence/), last night about 4-5 hrs talking the issues with my bro-in-law (Mark), and just finished this new thread + comments.
    The proposal I made to Mark is something close to this:

    First, a thought that I think merits restating (someone posted in the previous blog’s comments section). It just doesn’t seem likely that the God who created the immense complexity that we see in this universe is “all science and no philosophy”. aka – he is so uber smart and powerful that he can create & sustain everything from sub-atomic particles to vast galaxies and our entire universe, but oops… he accidentally gave people free will and didn’t anticipate the fallout from it, so now he’s gotta try various strategies (messing up along the way) to fix the problem. Not that I’m trying to satiate a deep thirst for a God who is good & all-knowing & all-powerful, it just doesn’t seem likely that he’s not.

    So getting to the topic at hand, we’ll all admit (or @ least most of us) that the texts containing stories of a violent God to which we’re referring were written by people coming from a certain paradigm / worldview. They certainly had biases, and they definitely spun & redacted & added to their stories (and even invested them with theological meanings). For example, there were many socio-political reasons why Judah was taken into captivity by Babylon in ~587BCE… and an adept historian (using good political scientific observation) could probably explain to you exactly why it happened and who caused it and which leader defied which other leader to cause Judah’s defeat(s), but the prophets are like… No, it’s YHWH that’s doing it all… not Nebuchadnezzar or any other geo-political power.
    My point here is that many things are attributed to YHWH (frequently) in these texts that may very well be authorial or redactorial (is that even a word?) commentary. Or they could very well be completely accurate truth claims. How to sort all that out is a whole other discussion, but if it’s happening, it cannot (or should not) be ignored when thinking through the goodness (or badness) of YHWH.

    So next, I’d like to ask a question that I think is @ least close to the heart of what we’re discussing: “Are the violent actions attributed to YHWH in these texts immoral actions?” Is violence always immoral? I always consider it a good post if I can work Jack Baur in somewhere, so here goes.
    So when Jack Baur is under a time crunch, and breaks into someone’s house to get a piece of information so he can save a million people from some nuclear threat… he’s going to do whatever it takes to get the job done so he can pursue his agenda and “complete his mission”, and we’d all say he’s doing the right thing (or would we? further discussion perhaps?). I guess I would like to parallel this to YHWH and his mission (and agenda) and “whatever it takes” to get it done (only on an infinitely more complex scale that, as impossible as it is to imagine, Jack Baur couldn’t even operate on – I know that’s crazy talk ;-). We just don’t understand how “cutting off the heads of 4 year old girls”, and “carrying off virgins for mating” can be morally justifiable actions… but we can’t see the bigger picture. I guess I would throw out another idea as well, as good as Jack Baur is, YHWH is better because he goes back and makes things right with the people into whose home he intruded (although i’ll admit there are still lots of questions as to how exactly he accomplishes that).

    Ok… I’m ready for my post-blogpost beating. 🙂

    • 14 Mark December 14, 2010 at 2:21 pm

      Certainly, we would not all say Jack Bauer is doing the right thing. That may be because we believe his agenda or mission is flawed or that may be because we believe that whether or not his mission is flawed, it is not legitimate for him to try and carry that mission out at all costs.

      In order to make this judgment about God, first, we’d have to think about what his mission is and how killing innocent children helps to carry that out. I’m hearing you say ‘I don’t know how killing innocent children helps God do his mission, but he’s way smarter than me so it must help him somehow.’ This seems like a cop out to me.

      It seems to me that the mission of God in scripture (in most places) is to redeem what he has created. It seems that many of these violent texts are in tension with that mission, not in harmony with it. Should they then be ‘condemned’?

  13. 15 Jeffrey555 December 15, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    Apparently God was still in recovery in the New Testament. Jesus had some rather testy comments about hell and the final judgment. Paul said some hair raisng things – note II Thessalonians 1:6-9 and Romans 1:18-32 And that last book – Revelation! I’ve always thought via astute choices of verses you could preach about the loving God of the Old Testament versus the judgmental God of the New Testament. Of course that was 2000 years ago so presumably God has finally worked through his issues and is now a serene, tolerant 21st century moderate neither conservative or liberal in his outlook and safe to be around, open minded and gently understanding of all views. Where will he be a hundred years from now? I hope I can change with him.

    Despite my sarcasm, yes, I recognize there are thoroughly uncomfortable aspects of the Bible. But I remember God has the right and authority to kill and make alive in a way as a human I don’t have, so applying what is appropriate and right for me to God is perhaps a misunderstanding. I am from a farm background, I can grow and kill plants and animals in a way I can’t do with my fellow humans – I don’t have that authority – but God does! We think it rude of God to insist upon the blood of the lamb for the angel of death to pass over us.

    I once had a conversation with some one about difficult aspects of the Bible, I forget what I said, but I remember his final words “I may have to consider the possibility God is different from what I would like him to be” Each of us when we meet the true God will meet sticking points, stumbling blocks with him and then need to embrace metanoia, change of mind, repentance. Just because the modern mind hates and abhors something doesn’t make it false!

    • 16 Ted December 15, 2010 at 2:55 pm

      You raise an interesting point, Jeff: if there exists something that we might meaningfully call “God,” then whatever this something is cannot be amenable to our whims. If God is a bastard, then God is a bastard. If God is goodness and light, then God is goodness and light. If God is an impersonal force, then so it is. Likewise, if God does not exist, or if whatever does exist cannot meaningfully be called “God,” then this, too, need not submit to our speculations. We can blather on all we like, and whatever the “really real” happens to be is blowing us raspberries.

      I’m not sure how we would know such things, and I’m not sure why the speculations of a Bronze Age warrior tribal people (or their Axial Age reformers, or a Second Temple-era apocalyptic cult) trump all other speculations, except that they happen to be part of our religious literature.

      In the face of this cloud of unknowing, then, it makes that what we say about God becomes important, as it reflects our sense of what should be. A God who can capriciously kill or demand death does not seem terribly useful for securing our notions of the good, though it might more accurately reflect our sense that life is unpredictable. I’m open to the idea that an untame God is a more realistic picture of the way life actually is, but I’m humored by the fact that those who posit such a God always seem to think he/she/it is on their side.

  14. 17 Jeffrey555 December 15, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    Hello Ted,

    Here’s an attempt to respond to your

    “I’m not sure why the speculations of a Bronze Age warrior tribal people (or their Axial Age reformers, or a Second Temple-era apocalyptic cult) trump all other speculations”

    It’s a rough and ready Trinitarian apologetic. If as Mark said that the resurrection of Jesus is a historical possibility/fact indicating a special personhood of him (The Son of God) this serves as a vailidation of our warrior tribal/axial age/apocalyptic cult writings that the Christ event is embedded in. Jesus was into the Old Testament. Paul and other New Testament writers being close to or actual witnesses of the event of the resurrected Christ should also be listened to with credence. Paul’s statement that the creation testifies to the creator points to the Father “In the beginning God created . . . ” supported by various arguments that the physical universe shows the possibility of a creator, also showing validity of ancient writings’ teachings there is a personal creator God.
    “Our fellowship is with the Father and the Son” I John
    The Holy Spirit brings a continued sense/perception of the other two persons showing Jesus and the Father are alive in the here and now, along with attendant miracles, answered prayers, bettered character. Additional evidence for validity of primal writings. Anyway it’s enough for me.

  15. 18 Matt-Phillips December 16, 2010 at 7:41 pm

    So getting back to Mark’s post above from Dec 14:

    “I’m hearing you say ‘I don’t know how killing innocent children helps God do his mission, but he’s way smarter than me so it must help him somehow.’ This seems like a cop out to me.”

    I hear what you’re saying… and to an extent I agree, it does seem like a cop out. I also completely agree with your comments about the nature and overall direction of YHWH’s mission… redemption & restoration of his creation (much more has been said about this elsewhere). I guess the options I would keep on the table when encountering the kind of “violent” text mentioned above would be:

    1) There is a “problem” with the text (in part or in whole). There is a lot that can be said here and many different ways that a text can have “problems”. To name a few, authorial commentary, attributing to YHWH things that he did not do/say to justify the author’s actions/agenda, spinning or writing the story to “make sense of the author’s circumstances” (i’m thinking here of writing w/ the specific intent of making sense of exile, or whatever other situation the author is in at the moment).
    I think these & other “problems” (if someone can think of a better word, please comment) with texts happen through redaction over time by many individuals and committees.
    To ask if these texts should be labeled “condemned” is, I think, not that useful… rather, they simply are what they are. I think a much more useful question is, “What in these texts actually represents YHWH’s true intents & actions and what does not?”

    2) Second option, the text is accurate and speaks for YHWH (aka – expresses YHWH’s true intents & actions), and we simply don’t have all the information and therefore cannot understand how YHWH’s actions do anything but deter from his mission of redemption & restoration (much less help it along). But if we could see the bigger picture, we would completely understand and agree on his course of action (assuming we also agree with his agenda of redemption & restoration).

    All of this brings to mind several other questions… First, the redemption & restoration of who? Does a case exist where one nation’s or person’s redemption & restoration necessarily requires the destruction & demise of another? Is it possible that YHWH only acts violently because, in doing so, he is also acting redemptively? Is there a such thing as “necessary redemptive violence”?

    NOTE: I guess I don’t think it’s impossible that YHWH is learning / recovering from his immature violent tendencies… I just don’t think it as likely as option #2 above. AKA – if I have to choose between the being that created the immense complexity of this universe not understanding how to deal w/ rebellion, and me not understanding his actions… I’m gonna go with the later. What do you think? Is there a better way to frame things?

  16. 19 enpanico May 12, 2011 at 9:34 am

    GOd is great id His own way…no need to debate

  17. 20 bjsem May 12, 2011 at 9:40 am

    Respect God by His Rule.Then you’ll be come His Friend

  1. 1 The Way, One Truth, God’s Love | Moje Da Poet: Meditations & Musings Trackback on December 11, 2010 at 8:02 pm
  2. 2 God’s Grace Will Cover You In Warfare! December, 2010 « Prayer Forces Trackback on December 13, 2010 at 5:38 am
  3. 3 The Way, One Truth, God's Love « Variegated Vision Trackback on May 8, 2011 at 2:08 pm

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