Brad Jersak has the following books I have read:
Can you hear me?
Kissing the leper
Her Gates will never be shut
A more Christlike God
I am going to discuss each of these books since they are all worth reading. There is some autobiographical information, particularly in Can you hear me? where we learn about Brad’s strong evangelical background, his application of self to excellence, his discovery that he lacked intimacy with God and then his discovery of intimacy with God. More recently he has moved away from the simply evangelical background and joined the Orthodox Church. While I don’t expect to follow such a route myself, a perusal of this site will demonstrate my sympathy with this. Here is his account of it, taken from his website www.bradjersak.com
By now, most of my social networks and some of my readership have heard of my move into the Eastern Orthodox Church. I was ‘chrismated’ at the end of June this year (2013) and ordained as a ‘reader’ for the All Saints Monastery in Dewdney in October. You might wonder why I—an evangelical / charismatic / Anabaptist—would don a cassock and take up incense and chanting. If you’re curious, here’s the short version.
Why did I become an Orthodox Christian?
First, because in my theology, I already was Orthodox for over ten years. When I say ‘theology,’ don’t think of stuffy, religious hair-splitting. I’m referring to the basic questions of who God is, what God is like, why Jesus came and died, what salvation is and how that happens. On these questions, I feel most at home in the Orthodox tradition, and I finally decided to make it official.
I experienced this as a move from my foxhole to a harbor. Allow me to summarize:
The ancient Orthodox vision as I know it proclaims the saving power of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, and the ever-enduring mercies of the Father—the same Gospel I have always believed, but came to understand more clearly and preach more overtly a decade ago. To me, it’s the same Good News, but now even more so. I have experienced Orthodox theology as more evangelical—i.e. better news—than what I had known and taught in the context of popular Evangelical-ism.
Of course, there are growing enclaves and popular movements among Evangelicals where theologians of hope are hunkering down and discovering what other Christians have taught all along. But they also endure a barrage of hostilities from members of their own tribe, those who marginalize them with hateful labels and even believe God has called them to the attack. So on the one hand, Evangelicalism continues to morph and mature, while on the other, some of her popular streams still cling to a retributive image of God — and its most zealous gatekeepers are quick to brand those who don’t as false teachers and heretics. Lord, have mercy.
Sadly, it’s all too tempting to respond in kind, as illustrated by the shameless Twitter wars between ‘emergents’ or ‘progressives’ and ‘the Gospel Coalition,’ to name just one example. The mean-spiritedness that manifests in these battles really refutes the chief evidence of our discipleship: love for one another. It’s a sickening offence to those who witness it and turn away in disgust. I am reminded of Christ’s warning: “You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.” Lord, have mercy.
On the other hand, many faithful Evangelical friends persist on this spiritual journey deeper into the Father’s heart. We don’t always agree, but we trust each other’s hearts and persevere in prayer for one another, asking for a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Christ and his kingdom of love. We know how to disagree while also holding fast to our love for each other, sojourning together into the kingdom of God.
So theologically, I’ve moved from my own previous, retributive vision of God’s justice to something more restorative—from a Gospel that condemns and punishes sinners (unless…) to the one that forgives and heals sinners (even while…). I finally asked myself why I continue to scramble for cover from ‘friendly fire’ in trench networks and sub-sects of Protestantism when the Orthodox Church offers an ancient and enormous open harbor, and requires neither hiddenness nor apology for my central beliefs. They encourage and even expect me to teach the Beautiful Gospel (cf. ‘the Gospel in Chairs’) of the Fathers.
In 2013, the ‘Beautiful Gospel’ and the ‘hopeful inclusion’ I described in the Hellbound? documentary were ridiculed and rejected by various ‘haters’ (usually by neo-Reformed bloggers) just as Can You Hear Me?, Children, Can You Hear Me?, Stricken by God? and Her Gates Will Never Be Shut had been since 2003. The tone was vitriolic and the intent malicious. “We’re coming after you,” I was told. God had ‘called them’ to oppose and eradicate my ministry. I found myself blacklisted or excluded in circles where I once had a voice. I’ve known times of sadness and anger over this. But also gratitude.
These are beloved enemies, very hard at work (indeed, obsessively so) for my salvation through the crucifixion of my flesh and ego in ways that my friends could not approach. Our enemies serve as unwitting sculptors of our character, fashioning us one chip at a time into the image and likeness of Christ. I see God’s providence at work in their diligent opposition—in fact, they were a crucial factor in driving me to the embrace of Mother Church. How can I but thank them and pray, “Lord, have the same mercy on them that I want for myself.”
Second, while I have been Orthodox theologically for years, it was not until this year that I discovered the healing balm and therapeutic beauty of Orthodox worship—their liturgy of beautiful psalms, confessions and prayers.
Beyond the wonder and beauty of it all, at this stage of my journey, my nervous system also seems to handle liturgical worship much better than the anxieties of Revival-ism. Extended years of attending and leading protracted revival meetings, trying to ‘press in’ for the ‘breakthrough’ that would lead to a great altar call, ministry time or full-blown revival have left me weary and yes, a little cynical. I want to be completely open and responsive to God—I want everything God has for me—but there’s an anxiety attached to revivalism’s question of whether or not or how God will (or won’t!) ‘show up.’ At its worst (and I’ve been there, done that), habits tantamount to a kind of neo-Baalism manifest and faith-filled expectancy is often displaced with repeatedly disappointed expectations. There’s a sense of striving to ‘enter into worship’ in such a way that we somehow feel the need to beg or even manipulate God into coming and visiting us.
Happily, many casualties of unhealthy renewal practice have gladly shifted to healthier postures of ‘soaking’ rather than cajoling, ‘habitation’ versus visitation, and welcoming God’s presence vis-à-vis lamenting his absence. Charismatic and contemplative worship are fusing in beautiful ways. I am so glad for this, but for me right now, the old renewal cry for ‘MORE!’—the songs of hunger and thirst—is being satisfied in the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church.
What I’ve found in the Divine Liturgy—composed by church fathers like St. Basil and St. Chrysostom and preserved in the Orthodox Church—is that I don’t worry about ‘entering into worship.’ I can open my heart and simply let worship enter me. I don’t need to wonder what (or if) a meeting is building towards—it always, always climaxes in the powerful gift of receiving the Spirit-anointed Mystery of the body and blood of Jesus. In the Eucharist, I eat of the tree of life and ‘taste of the fountain of immortality.’ While others are still energized by a great renewal meeting—and I can still attend and minister in them when invited—my aging and somewhat damaged nervous system needs to be infused with the holy medicine of the prayers of the people and the grace they invoke. I experience it like an I.V. drip that works its way into my deepest needs and deepest wounds. In the Divine Liturgy I pray for mercy and receive it from the ‘man-befriending God’ who comes to us as the Great Physician … and I am revived! While some in the renewal have anxiously waited for an authenticating ‘third-heaven’ experience, the Orthodox are fully aware that participating in the Divine Liturgy is a charismatic experience of worship in the ‘heavenlies,’ in communion with all the saints and angels gather to approach the throne of grace along with us.
a wider embrace
I still embrace and will continue fellowship with the entire breadth of Christian believers as best I can, in joyful obedience to Jesus’ beautiful vision of John 17 love and unity. I now serve as faculty (New Testament and Patristics) in an evangelical-charismatic (largely Anglican) theological school. I also sit as an editor for several magazines and blogs that are eclectic and quite progressive. I enjoy the friendship and support of the Fresh Wind family and Soulstream community (a dispersed contemplative network). And I continue to bring continually tweaked Listening Prayer seminars wherever local congregations and Christian colleges invite me. My heart is to participate in the love of Christ for all however I can.
At the same time, through chrismation, I intentionally broadened my embrace to reach out to my brothers and sisters from the Eastern Church. I’m ‘uncapping the wells’ of my spiritual heritage, reaching further back (centuries beyond my Baptist, Moravian and Hussite reformer-evangelist fore-parents), to rediscover my Celtic and Orthodox missionary forerunners in British and Czech lands. And while I continue to teach what I’ve already taught for the past decade of public ministry, I now try to do so from the P.O.V. of an Orthodox herald of Good News, a catechist for the Gospel, launching from a great harbor rather than peeking out from my own little foxhole.
Now for the books. Can you hear Me? is an excellent work on hearing God’s voice. Listening to God by Joyce Hugget was the first book I read in this area; it is an older book, very good; as I remember it, somewhat less ‘charismatic’, in the sense of perhaps not inculcating such a strong expectation of God speaking personally; and that really is the very strong push of this book. If we are to try to summarize Can you hear Me? I would say that he says God is talking to us absolutely all the time in myriad ways and that the moment we ask him to Jesus will show up and speak – which of course is exactly what the Bible says he will do. We just have to believe it.
Naturally, there are issues. How do we recognize the voice of Jesus? Well, the answers are standard answers – Test the source; test the content; test the fruit. An important issue is this – am I just imagining it? The answer here is very good: who would this “I” be that is “just” imagining – do we have this independent “I”? – well no, the Bible teaching is rather that there are possible sources for the images playing on the screen of our mind (whether in words, pictures, impressions), perhaps the flesh, perhaps the Spirit . . . the issue for us is discernment, but our starting point is that “My sheep do hear my voice.” There are numerous very encouraging stories as well as practical things to do to further our trust in hearing from God. Do we make mistakes? Yes, and Brad gives the normal safeguards, for example, reference to fellow believers, so – we don’t give up because of mistakes.
The process of listening is also shown leading us deeper into the spiritual life, particularly in intercessory prayer, but also dealing with blockages in our own lives as well as others. Perhaps the main point of the book, again, is that things are actually real in ways we may not expect; what goes on in our “imagination” tips over so naturally into the spiritual. Again, there are telling stories of Brad and his family as well as ‘ministry’ stories. This is one of the simplest books I know, which is as high praise as I know how to give; this is one of those few books perhaps everyone should read.
Kissing the leper contains numerous wonderful stories of God at work in those we clever clogs might feel are ‘the least of these’, and ‘things that are not.’ Personally, I love to read stories about the wonderful things that happen among children, things that blow out of the water our (my) stuffy intellectualism. (Not of course that the use of the intellect is wrong, but it can get rather stuffy.) However, many of the stories in this book are a step further than that, involving people with severe mental disabilities who are a huge blessing to their church. Of course, that isn’t all there is in the book, there is lots of lovely discussion of the simple ways of Jesus from a variety of sources and a number of stories. I want to quote from one, the story of Kathy, physically, not mentally, handicapped.
. . . she is bound to wheelchair, blind in one eye, and endures constant pain in what’s left of her hips. But within her broken body you will find a lively girl with an enormous capacity for God’s presence . . . As worship continued, the children skipped away, and I had a chance to sidle up to her. I felt her hand in mine and thought I’d invite God to love me through her. I started to feel a little woozy, and a quiet inner voice spoke to my heart past the din of the band, “You’d better lay down, boy.”
“Are you about to download something of Kathy’s spiritual strength to me?” I asked.
“To which the voice repeated, “You’d better lay down.”
Occasionally I’m smart enough to obey. So right there and then, I lay down on the floor beside Kathy’s wheelchair, still holding her hand. Suddenly, what felt like a powerful jolt of electricity drove through my body. It felt like the time I grabbed the bare section of a 220 volt drill press wire. I caught my breath just in time for a second jolt. Then a third. It seemed to me this was a power-of-God thing, but it was so intense that I prayed, “God, I want everything you have for me. Help me not to beg you to stop.” Four. Five. I was counting the jolts . . . Twelve. Kathy let go, dropping my limp arm to the floor. She just sort of smirked, then carried on in worship. [Well, Brad wonders what this is all about, because it does not seem to have an impact on him – but then a few days later, in the course of his ministry, there is a very dramatic healing, beyond his previous experience, so he asks God about it . . .]
He replied, “That came from me and from Kathy. You were just the “capacitor” ( a temporary storage unit for power) storing my power until M. needed it.” What could I say? I signed off not with a hearty “Amen” but with a humble “Oh.” St Paul said, “God has chosen the weak and foolish things to confound the [so-called] wise and strong” (1 Cor 1:27). That looks good on paper, but what if he really meant it? How might that look in this world that exalts competence and expertise? How might that look in the Church, which has been co-opted by the world system of hierarchical power?
Kathy West is my constant reminder that God’s kingdom is much different than our kingdoms. It is the realm where those who exalt themselves are humbled, and the humble are exalted; where true greatness is achieved through servanthood; and where downward mobility is the name of the game.
Her gates will never be shut would seem to have cost Brad a lot of support. He examines the doctrine of hell, and his conclusions are not the orthodoxies of most current (conservative) evangelical thought, so that it has led to an accusation against him of ‘universalism’, the doctrine that all will be saved. This is not what is said, and in fact is explicitly denied; instead a ‘hopeful inclusivism’ is espoused. We cannot make a definitive judgment since judgment does not belong to us – which I would add is precisely the position taken by Daniel Bourguet.
The big issue of the book is how literally we are to take the biblical doctrine of hell, “infernalism”. Like myself, Brad comes from a classical evangelical background, with its clear distinction between the believer who goes to heaven on death and the non-believer who goes straight to hell; an important element of evangelism is the question, “if you were to die tonight, where would you go?” Like me, Brad doesn’t seem to have found this whole position very helpful. It may well be true as doctrine, though it is not clear that that is really what the Bible teaches, but as a basic approach to evangelism, I am not very convinced – though it may at times have relevance. But to simply dismiss Brad’s approach is not possible: one foundational testimony for me, for example, is Kenneth Hagin’s moving personal story I went to hell. It is of course wrong to discount the idea, to quote Hagin, that ‘there is a heaven to gain and a hell to shun.’ But what does the Bible itself actually teach about hell? Brad examines the range of scriptures with their historical backgrounds, together with the range of historical church teaching on the subject, because of course there is a whole other side to the issue, and there are certainly scriptures that point away from eternal hell for non-believers, as well as those that suggest it as a reality. As I understand it, Brad concludes that the Bible deliberately leaves these things open. Some people (perhaps many) might feel that their cherished evangelical views are being subverted here, but that is not the purpose of the book. The following passage states the book’s contents well:
No matter our view of hell, if we stand back and look at Jesus’ character, preaching, and ministry as a whole, we can probably all agree that the defining characteristic of the God whom he revealed is love (John 3:16; 1 John 3 to 4). He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Pet 3:90. Further, he sent his Son into the world as Savior to forgive us and reconcile us to himself (2 Cor 5:19). He welcomes all, the righteous and the wicked, to the heavenly banquet (Matt 22:10). Jesus says his Father has rendered all judgment into his hands (John 5:22-27), and yet Jesus said he did not come to judge or condemn (John 8:15; 12:47) but to extend unilateral mercy, which trumps all judgment (Jas 2:13).
With this revelation of God as our foundation, a punitive judgment of eternal torture in burning flames that can never satiate God’s wrath is not merely a paradox – it is a flat out contradiction. Can we not therefore dismiss the texts that bear such threats? How could we, especially when some of the Bible’s direst warnings about hell come from the mouth of Jesus, himself? Instead, if we are truly people of the book and followers of Jesus of Nazareth, we must heed such warnings with the utmost respect.
It is interesting to note that an exploration of early church belief leads, as seems to be usual, to Augustine (see Roger Forster) having initiated huge change in doctrine, and this seems to be a major source of over stated infernalism.
Her gates has an extensive bibliography. Brad does not claim to be a scholar; he does claim to be endeavouring to bring the best scholarship to the general reader. To me, this is a thoroughly helpful book.
The contents of Her gates will never be shut clearly link to A more Christlike God.
In one sense this book can be described as a look at the issues of theodicy – how do we reconcile the God of love with all the suffering and pain in the world? So far as I have understood these matters in my not particularly extensive reading of theology, I am not sure these questions would exist in the virulent form they do were it not for Augustine, who introduced an understanding of God’s sovereignty which actually causes there to be a problem. If God is conceived of as willing evil, which he must do if he is an absolute sovereign as formulated by Augustine, then it is very hard to reconcile this with his being good, and it just won’t do to say that this is a paradox we don’t understand because, in the end, it seems to make God repulsive; I mean – it repels people!
Brad, in this book, works through many, many of the issues that arise – in fact, to be honest, he points out issues I had not thought of. An issue that did occur to me recently was to ask how reports of God’s instructions to Israel to wipe out the Canaanites differ from Mohammed telling his men that God said to destroy a large group of Jews who were resisting him. This is not an easy question to answer. Well, Brad takes a tour through this sort of thing. His conclusions will not be pleasing to those with very literalist understandings of the Bible rather than of the Bible as a progressive record of human understandings of the God with whom we have to do; whether you approve his views or not (obviously, I do) he does cover a lot of ground and a lot of scriptures. An issue he covers particularly closely is the ‘metaphor’ of God’s wrath.
It is perhaps with this topic of God’s wrath that we turn to the book’s central intent, which I take to be debunking the doctrine of ‘penal substitution’, the Calvinistic teaching. ‘Substitution’ is simply biblical, but the penal substitution Brad has in view is not. I have a theologian friend who holds the penal substitution view; he writes extensively and almost invariably quotes Jesus’ ‘cry of dereliction’ from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Intrinsic to his view is that Jesus really was forsaken, that God turned his back on Jesus, who was bearing a punishment that should have been inflicted on us. (Note – this clearly connects with the doctrine of ‘infernalism’ discussed in Her Gates.) This friend consistently points to Jesus in his doctrine, and very helpfully too, but on this matter . . . not so sure that I don’t find it a negative dead end! And to me this is the point; like Brad I grew up being basically taught, or absorbing, the penal view, and like him it left me with a big headache, a big negative headache! It’s not, I believe, what was taught in the early church, and I think that Brad shows this, shows how mistaken the view is, and states the orthodox view clearly. In fact, he goes so far as to say that the penal substitution view is ‘heresy’! This is a strong statement, which I think perhaps is correct. (“My God, my God ….”: Jesus is quoting the whole Psalm, the whole hopeful psalm. For a full treatment of Jesus’ experience on the cross, see The Silence of God during the Passion by Daniel Bourguet.)
(An interesting little personal observation – it’s not that Jesus was bearing the punishment we ‘should have borne’ ie eternal separation, but that he was bearing what people DO bear, the weight of sin, and now no longer need to!)
As above, this is not a scholarly book per se , but does refer to scholarly works. Personally, I now have two books which accurately state what I am inclined to believe theologically, the Roger Forster book referred to elsewhere, and this one.