Monday, August 12, 2013

BookPastor >> "God's Favourite Place on Earth" (Frank Viola)

This review was first published at "Panorama of a Book Saint" on June 18th, 2013.


TITLE: God's Favorite Place on Earth
AUTHOR: Frank Viola
PUBLISHER: Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook Publishers, 2013, (208 pages).

Is there such a thing as Jesus' favourite place on earth? If so, is it Jerusalem, the capital of much religious significance? Or is it in Bethlehem where he was first born? No. It's Bethany, insists Frank Viola, author of "Pagan Christianity" and "Reimagining Church." Using the biblical Lazarus as the narrator of Jesus' activities in, out, and through Bethany, Viola gives a fascinating narrative of the Bethany chapters of Jesus' life. Beginning with the facts of Bethany to prepare readers to appreciate the geography, the size, the botanical spread, filled with plenty of biblical images, Biola demonstrates passionately why it is a preferred place of refuge for Jesus. While the meaning of "Bethany" is not clear, there are suggestions that it could mean house of the poor, or afflicted, house of dates or house of figs. More importantly, in Bethany, Jesus fellowships with Mary, Martha, Simon, as well as Lazarus. Using the gospels as the main guide, Viola brilliantly recreates the biblical scene as much as possible, so that readers can understand not only the context, but the nuances of Bethany is so significant.

According to the author, Bethany is appreciated because some of the most precious moments of Jesus' time on earth were spent there. When Jerusalem rejects him, Bethany embraces him. The way Bethany, or more specifically, the people at Bethany receives Jesus, makes Jesus better able to find solace amid rejections at other cities. Viola reminds us right from the start that the Christian life is not one of comfort, prosperity, or winning successes, but one of discomfort, poverty, and suffering. It is because Jesus has suffered much, we as followers take comfort in a Saviour who fully understands us and our sufferings.

At Bethany, we see how Mary is awed by the presence of Jesus, reminding us our spiritual posture when we come before the throne of grace of an Awesome God. Here, we see a powerful exposition of the famous passage about Martha and Mary. Viola dispels the popular dichotomy that puts Martha as busy and Mary as contemplative. The main point is while Martha receives Jesus into her house, Mary receives Jesus into her heart. Martha focuses on temporal stuff and is anxious over them. Mary is captivated by the eternal Lord and is restful at the feet of Jesus. For me, it is basically the difference between "living for God" versus "living in God." Viola gives some three helpful applications on what it means to receive Christ.

At Bethany, we see how Lazarus was awakened by Jesus. In a moving narrative, Lazarus shares about how he was raised from the dead, and how emotions were free flowing by all his loved ones, as well as Jesus. The gospels record only three instances where Jesus shed tears. One was at Jerusalem where he shed tears of sorrow. The second was his tears of prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane. The third was Bethany where he wept as he expressed sympathy with Mary and Martha. Viola gives a powerful message on the significance of the resurrection.

Chapter 4 explains the breaking of the alabaster jar of expensive perfume, and how Mary anoints Jesus completely with it. In the process, the whole house is filled with the fragrant aroma of Mary preparing Jesus for his impending death. It is completely worth it. A contrast is also made with the attitude of Judas Iscariot who claims that the breaking of the jar and the use of the perfume was a waste. As we think about it, we only call it a waste when something expensive is used on a less valuable or less worthy purpose, such as using expensive water to wash our hands. When it comes to Jesus, if we believe Jesus is worth it, he is worth not just the most expensive gifts we have, he is worth our all! I appreciate Viola's interpretation of the fig tree, where he gives a deep insight into the cursing of the fig tree, relating it to the judgment of Israel that bears false witnesses.

Slowly and gently, Viola leads us toward a posture of anticipation of the great enthronement of Christ. For as we seek union with Christ, we will be inspired by the vision of the great kingdom of heaven. We will be set free from enslavement to earthly bitterness and temporal suffering. We will be able to better respond to struggles that we face on a daily basis, because Jesus himself has suffered all the way.

My Thoughts

This is one of those books that really gets me pumped up with excitement, not only with the powerful exhortations to read the gospels with a more discerning eye on the significance of Bethany, but also the many insights of the love of Jesus in spite of suffering. Things like the lessons of life is learned most through the school of suffering. Insights like how Martha sees only the small picture of serving God, while Mary takes in the whole person of the Servant God. Though much of the book is written from a first hand account from Lazarus's perspective, with some amount of fictional dramatization, we need to appreciate the book from the angle of story telling, not from the microscope of historical word-for-word replay of the first century encounters with Jesus. The best that anyone in the modern world can do is to recreate as much as possible the meaning behind the texts. One can dispute whether Bethany is indeed the favourite place of Jesus. Whatever the case, it is quite clear that where there are willing hearts, there Jesus will find his favourite dwelling place. Viola has demonstrated strongly that in bethany, he has found people who have carved out a place in their hearts, and in doing so, he willingly lets himself into their hearts.

For me, Chapter 1 alone is worth the price of the book, especially for those of us in Christian ministry. AW Tozer has said that "All great Christians have been wounded souls." Reflecting on Jesus' call to disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Christ, it should not come as a surprise that the Christian call is to lose, be broken, and be smitten for Christ. Frank Viola goes even further to say: "Unbroken people don't know how to lay their lives down and lose. They only know how to try and win." As I think of it, it is really true. Those of us in Christian ministry need to remember this. It's a terrible thing, but when you are in the ministry, losing is a default mode. If you are still unconvinced, let me suggest you read Matthew 5:38-42.

I highly recommend this book for your reading. Share it widely. Discuss it passionately. It is worth it.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by David C. Cook Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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