Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Book Review: The Call To Wonder by R.C. Sprul Jr.

As part of the Tyndale Bloggers Network I will occasionally review books provided to me by the publisher.  

My father-in-law passed away recently.  While in Michigan for his funeral, I brought the new book by R.C. Sroul Jr., The Call To Wonder.  When my sister-in-law saw the book on the end table, she mentioned that Sproul’s wife had just passed away and that she had been reading his blog posts (you can find his blog here).  This brought perspective to my reading.  As an author he wrote about loving God like a child.  Now as a widower that childlike relationship with God is severely tested.  As he wrote the book, he was comforting his wife in her struggle through cancer treatment.  As I read the book, he was grieving the loss of his wife to that cancer.  Stethoscope to his chest, I can hear his heart through these words bound in this small book. 

The book focuses on children as a model.  Sproul considers their trust, their wonder, and their desire to please as parallels between the innocence of children and our approach to God.  He does so by using examples from his own children.  These are wonderful parables, stories of children that are personal, intimate, and real. At times these are tender stories.  His chapter on his special needs daughter, Shannon, aka Princess Happy, is particularly touching (chapter 6, “the Call To Joy). Her fascination with balloons and her “love affair with sunbeams” (p. 144) are examples of how “Shannon lives in a constant state of wonder because she receives the grace and beauty of God for what they are and sees them wherever they are – which is everywhere” (p.143).  This tenderness gives way to conviction.  His suggestion that his children are his spiritual betters (p.23) may mistake the model for the reality, but the model is an effective mirror.  I can see the deficiencies of my faith in the ways of children. 

So Sproul calls me to treat God as “completely and utterly trustworthy” (p.46); to take in the universe “as a child takes in a fireworks show” (p.61); to resist the temptation to tame the God of surprises (p.4); and to ardently desire to please God as a child longs to please his father (p.86). These are hard principles, even in the placid seas of familiar routine - how much more in his wild torrent of spousal death.   And yet, if his blog posts are any indication, he is seeking to practice what he preaches.

But as a book critic, I cannot not merely listen to his heart.  At some point I must set aside the stethoscope and pick up the scalpel. The book is built on Mathew 18:3, where Jesus says, “Unless you change and become as little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (NIV).  When Jesus tells us that we must become like children, he is using a simile, a form of comparison using the words “like” or “as.”  The simile has meaning in as much as we understand the connection between the two things being compared. 

If I use snow as the object of a simile, that may be because snow is white, or cold, or impermanent. I may be referring to any of those attributes - it is unlikely I am referring to all of them.  The simile cannot mean whatever we please.  Context will help determine which of these referents I have in mind. 
When Jesus calls us to be like children it is within a discussion of who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  In verse 4 he clarifies his intent.  “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”  The key to greatness is humility.  A child is a picture of that.  We should show the same dependence.  Nothing in my hand I bring.  Simply to the cross I cling. The chapter on “The Call To Trust” has its finger on this.  Other chapters, like the Call to Wonder, the Call to Please, The Call To Joy are interesting, but not outgrowths of Jesus’ call to be like a child.  None of these are hinted at by the simile. 

This isn’t heretical, but it does seem sloppy, particularly as he uses his tendency toward deep theological reflection as a contrast to his children’s model of faith.  Like writing a note about how wonderful my handwriting is, in a scribble that is barely legible, there is deep irony in ribbing himself for being ”quite the theologically sound fellow” (p.136) and then carelessly interpreting his key text.  

Still, this is a worthwhile read.  Even if the lessons learned can’t be hung on the passage he relies on, they remain valuable lessons. Some are lessons I need.

Most helpful for me was his suggestion that we feel loss most profoundly when it is in contrast to previous blessing (pages 169-172).   I miss my father-in-law because he was such a blessing to have had in my life.  So rather than be embittered by the loss, I should be grateful for the blessing.  To get bogged down in “why, God?” is to miss out on “Thank you, Lord” ( I comment more on this lesson in my previous post "Entitlement").

To get hung up on one deficiency would be to miss this and other valuable lessons offered in this book.  There is a place for a scalpel in your reading.  But in this case, make sure to rely most heavily on the stethoscope.

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