so-much-more

From the cover:

This book is a gesture of welcoming friendship for people who are new or newly returned to the Christian faith–those who are searching, lurking, longing, or learning. So Much More starts from the beginning, assuming little to no knowledge about the faith, yet appeals to the demanding reader–those who want things explained plainly but also deeply and beautifully.

Rather than offering rational defenses of Christian doctrine, So Much More responds to concerns particularly urgent in our postmodern times: our longing for transcendence, our desire for integrity in all parts of our lives, our need to find a way of thinking and living that makes sense in a bewildering marketplace of ideas and lifestyles.

So Much More does not attempt to make Christianity simple or merely practical, but rather to expose for newcomers its richness and depth. Ecumenical and generous, its inviting tone and poetic prose create a compelling picture of how Christian belief, practice, passion, and imagination can open ordinary lives to God’s transforming love.

Reviews

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“Unlike many authors reviewed in this column, Rienstra is not religious by profession but a professor of English at Calvin College. Her faith is serene, but she is not shy about acknowledging the difficulties of the deep spiritual life: “The Christian faith rests on great pillars of certainty; yet these pillars are mysteries…[that] do not require that we shut down questions but that we open ourselves to greater answers and perhaps to questions we have never asked.” Written with unobtrusive skill, Rienstra’s work satisfies both the heart and the mind and should find an appreciative audience. For most collections.”

- Library Journal

March 1, 2005

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“Unlike many introductions to the Christian faith, which seem to be driven by a barely suppressed anxiety, as if the writer was trying to convince himself by answering every conceivable objection, Debra Rienstra’s So Much More radiates a serene confidence that is persuasive precisely because it is willing to acknowledge unsettled questions. All we absolutely need to know, she’s convinced, is given to us with assurance as trustworthy as the hand of a loving father or mother.”

- John Wilson

Editor, Books & Culture and series editor

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“A Calvin College professor, memoirist (Great With Child) and literary scholar, Rienstra offers an innovative introduction to Christianity….Three cheers for her ability to make abstruse doctrines like the Trinity not only intelligible but practical: “the Trinity gives us a way to organize and speak of our experiences of God.” Rienstra doesn’t shy away from hard questions (for example, drawing on both the Bible and recent scientific studies as she tackles the question of whether prayer works). Though spiritual seekers are clearly the primary audience, even mature Christians will be challenged and encouraged by this slim book….Rienstra’s walk through Christian teaching is generous, sympathetic, clear and often funny.”

- Publisher’s Weekly

Jan. 24, 2005

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“So Much More is a radiant manifesto for the fully realized Christian life. Rienstra speaks to the heart without mawkishness, speaks to the mind without logic-chopping, and speaks to the doubtful without patronizing. With good humor, and with erudition worn lightly, Rienstra provides a compelling Christian account of sin and grace, reason and revelation, the longing for God, the mystery of suffering, and the pathways of love and service.”

- Carol Zaleski

Author of The Book of Heaven

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So Much More is indeed so much more–more than your typical book on apologetics or theology or spirituality. Debra Rienstra is a gifted writer who imparts much wisdom in all of these areas–and more. This is a fine book for a person who is beginning a Christian pilgrimage. But it is also gives much guidance and encouragement to those of us who are well along in the journey.”

- Rich Mouw

President, Fuller Theological Seminary

Excerpts

The first section of the book presents basic Christian beliefs–the incarnation and the Trinity, sin, redemption, meaning in suffering–demonstrating how these truths can reshape our imaginations so that all the parts of our lives, blessed and terrible and everything in between, make sense together in light of some big answers to the big questions of our existence.

The second section of the book describes basic Christian practices–prayer, Bible reading, worship, community, and service–inviting readers to ground their own spiritual practices in tradition while adapting the hard-won wisdom of the past for modern times.

  • On the Incarnation
  • On Suffering
  • On Prayer
  • On Service
  • On Mystery

Chapter 2, p. 20

That the baby Jesus could be both fully divine and fully human, as Christians believe, defies logic. And for those who believe that God’s greatness inheres in his distance, in his difference from us, the incarnation is an offense. How can it be, and why should it be? No one can answer how it can be. On this point we stand on the precipice of mystery. But why it should be is easier to comprehend. A God far distant from us in being and power, if he desires any relationship with us, will have to make himself known to us somehow. The question is how and to what degree. To what extent does God remain above and beyond, and to what extent does God move among us?

We see God in the majesty and complex elegance of nature, yet nature leaves us with many questions about God. We learn more about God from holy books composed through some extraordinary, God-influenced process. Yet even the Scriptures-though precious, instructive, and indispensable-are not enough. Neither the natural world nor volumes of books are sufficient to reveal the fullness of God because neither is like enough to God. If God is a personal being, then the best means to make himself known to us is through personhood, in a form with which we are familiar: the human. Christians believe that God took on human form in order to give us the key to unlock the mystery of himself. To take on our nature like this may seem to reduce God’s glory and power, but this is precisely what we most need to know about God: that God’s essential nature is love, the kind of love willing to diminish oneself for the sake of another. In the incarnation God in a way reduces his own stature out of love, like a parent kneeling down to comfort a frightened child, pressing the face of compassion to the face streaked with tears and saying: “Do not be afraid. I am with you.”

Chapter 5, p. 111

The fundamental question for all of us is this: How big is our hope? Will we let our hope be small and feeble, invested only in the human spirit and the temporary endurance of our remarkable and terrible species? Or will we fling out our hope beyond the stars themselves toward the repair of all things? When we hear the promises of the Bible; when we see light in the love of others, in deeds of mercy, in gestures of hope amid despair, in the renewing seasons of creation, in new life, what will we take that light to be? Pinpricks in an enduring field of darkness? Or glimpses of a real light beyond that darkness, a light more true in the end than the darkness?

Paul wrote to the Colossians that he wished for them the “full riches of complete understanding, in order that [you] may know the mystery of God, namely Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (2:2-3). The Greek here for “complete understanding” is more literally translated “underflowing”-the deep interconnection among all things. In the depths of God, all things are ordered and harmonized, even the jangling surfaces of our suffering. We cannot explain it; we can only begin to touch that underflowing by receiving the transforming hope offered us in the mysterious, suffering love of Christ.

Chapter 6, pp. 136-37

I know from experience that there are places of grief and desperation when even that heartbeat of desire seems to go silent, when it is beyond our strength to form even a shadow of a prayer. At those times we depend on the prayers of others and on the knowledge that prayer “does not depend on us.” Here I turn to that passage from Romans 8 so necessary whenever I think about prayer: “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express” (verse 26). When we pray, and also when we do not pray, we are surrounded by the prayers of others and sustained by the Spirit.

In fact, we are surrounded by the prayer of creation itself. That heartbeat of desire to be drawn into the heart of God rises wordlessly from the colors, sounds, and structures of creation. The psalmist writes that, “the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (19:1). Paul adds that the creation “groans as in the pains of childbirth,” awaiting freedom from its “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:22, 21). The pulse of that praise and longing sets our tempo.

Even when we cannot pray, the creation itself cries out to God. The wild irises bloom, the waves crash, the trees wave their branches, humpback whales set their tails toward the sky and sing.

Chapter 10, pp. 214-15

Another paradox involves the value of our help. On the one hand, nothing we do, no matter how noble and self-sacrificial, earns us points with God. There are no points. Salvation comes by grace through faith, “not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:9). However, another strong current in the Bible suggests that our behavior has enduring consequences. The author of the New Testament book of James writes, “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (2:17). Jesus told a story of the “Son of Man” (a title he used for himself) sitting in judgment and separating people like sheep from goats. The sheep are the ones who have acted in mercy and helped those who were hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick, or imprisoned. The Son of Man welcomes them to receive their “inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” The goats are the ones who lacked these deeds, and they wind up going “to eternal punishment” (Matthew 25:31-46). Sermons on this passage predictably make people squirm. Is it all about grace or not? Do our deeds matter or not?

This is another example of a useful tension in Scripture, and different branches of Christianity tend to lean toward one side or the other of it. Roman Catholics traditionally emphasize the importance of works and Protestants generally emphasize faith, but both acknowledge the necessity of both. I was taught to resolve the tension by declaring that good works do not earn salvation but are a sign of salvation. Good works grow naturally when God replants us by grace, like sick little trees, in the soil of himself. That’s true; people do experience that kind of natural result when they surrender their lives to God. Roman Catholics would wisely add that good works can serve as restitution for our sins and help us along that path of salvation. At any rate, we have to retain the tension and live with it. The “works count, so watch out” passages in the Bible do not express the final truth about salvation; but they remind us that God cares about what happens here and now, and they can keep us, shall we say, highly motivated.

When we manage to do good works, the question remains whether our service accomplishes anything. If we all work very very hard, do we actually bring in the kingdom? After all, good hospitals and schools and just governors and well-motivated scientific advances do make a difference in the world. At the college where I teach, we expend a great deal of effort urging students to find their gifts and use them to build the kingdom; to go out there and infiltrate every field of knowledge and every profession, from accounting to filmmaking to civil engineering; and to infuse a Christian perspective into everything they do. We often sound like cheerleaders: “Engage the world! Redeem culture! We’re hard-working Protestants and we can do it! Yes!” I believe with all my heart that God uses people’s efforts to heal and bring hope; I see it every day. But the danger is that we might get all triumphant and think that we’re doing it and not God. Humanity is evolving; we’re contributing to progress; and if we keep at it, someday angels will descend on clouds to thank us.

This kind of self-congratulation amounts to self-flattery. We would all love to be worthy of God’s favor; we would love our work to earn points with the Almighty. Probably that’s why the staunchest saved-by-grace people work so hard: deep down, we would rather earn it. We like to think of ourselves as competent and deserving, so that grace is harder to accept than fair wages. This is, at heart, the sin of pride. A tendency to work too hard, even for God, can participate in the idolization of work in the culture around us. We might put a label of Christian service on it, but hard work without rest can be a mask for a sense of our own indispensable importance and a desire to look good and earn God’s favor. If we’re honest when we look under the surface of even our best efforts, we see them tainted by vanity, ignorance, arrogance, hypocrisy, foolishness, and any number of other flaws large and small. Better to rest from our work regularly and remember that whatever good comes of our service is God’s doing.

What a great relief, because no matter what you choose as your contribution to the world, you will have many moments of failure, frustration, discouragement, and even despair…. No matter how many surgeries you perform on children in Guatemala with cleft palates, many more will still need help. No matter how many homeless alcoholics you shelter and help, many more will die on the streets. The world’s pain is far too big for you or your government or your organization to solve completely. We have to credit our successes to God so that our failures also can rest in God’s open hand.

Leaving the outcome to God frees us from the need to succeed. We’re not planning the entire kingdom operation, and we’re not responsible for its ultimate success. We’re just the agents. We have to do our own part the best we can, with God’s help, and let the Spirit of God move freely in fire and wind.

Epilogue, p. 228-29

I have found that the mysteries of the faith do not require that we shut down questions but that we open ourselves to greater answers and perhaps to questions we have never asked. We perceive the energy of the atom and its infinitesimal particles only through a combination of higher mathematics, powerful electron microscopes, and theorizing minds. Similarly the mysteries of God call from us a combination of all our capacities and then some-intellect, imagination, will, feeling, and the gift of the Spirit-before we can touch their truth.

Developing these capacities takes time and daily practice. When it comes to apprehending mystery, we cannot expect, as we do in so many areas of life in the postmodern world, to follow a programmed pattern of behavior and receive instant and repeatable results. We tend to expect these days that we can purchase experiences in convenient packages-the thrilling movie, the perfect restaurant meal, the fabulous vacation. The capacity to apprehend mystery is not like that. It cannot be packaged or purchased. Instead it requires, as writer and pastor Eugene Peterson puts it, a “long obedience in the same direction.”

So the Christian faith invites us into daily practices in the same direction, into what soon begins to look like a pilgrimage: we study the Bible, worship together, serve in Jesus’ name. We pray and hope and seek God’s guidance and wait. We face discouragements and setbacks. As we do these things, it’s not so much that we understand the mysteries more clearly but that the mysteries have their effect on us, slowly molding us over time. Our behaviors change; our thoughts change; our desires and hopes slowly transform. We start becoming the people God has designed us to be, people in communion with God-friends of God who take on the reflected light of God’s presence. As the psalmist observes, “Those who look to him are radiant” (Psalm 34:3).

I have published books on motherhood, Christian spirituality, and language in worship. I write regularly about all sorts of topics for The Twelve, and I teach literature and writing at Calvin College, where I have served on the faculty since 1996.

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