Guest Book Review: Picturing the Gospel
Thanks to the kind folk at IVP for a review copy. While Phil was in Tübingen he took the copy himself for review from my shelf - and I think he's done a great job in presenting the material. Cheers mate! Btw, Phil, I finally obtained a copy of the article by Seitz in Canon and Biblical Interpretation you mentioned ...
Neil Livingstone's Picturing the Gospel: Tapping the Power of the Bible's Imagery (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP, 2007)
By Phil Sumpter
I was already a Christian when I first came across a Billy Graham pamphlet at the age of 18. It didn't convert me—I was already a believer—but this version of the Gospel revolutionised the way I thought and did Christianity. The idea that it was for my sin that Jesus had died, that he was a bridge over a chasm separating me from God, that only through faith alone could I be saved—this new paradigm gave a coherency to my otherwise more intuitive spiritual life and integrated a host of theological themes that had otherwise baffled me. Before the pamphlet I had been a committed Christian, open about my faith and trying to let it shape my life. After the pamphlet, I had a new vision and focus, which transformed the way I did this.
Things haven't stayed still, and I'm learning that the Gospel is much more than Jesus paying for my sin. I've always known intuitively that God is about life, about transformation, about joy. I saw it in the Brethren community which gave me the pamphlet, but I didn't have the vocabulary to articulate it. In my yearning to take stock and figure out what is going on, I feel Neil Livingstone's book was written just for me!
Picturing the Gospel—the title says it all. Livingstone's aim is to open up the true nature of the Gospel to us so that it can change the way we do Christianity. Yet his vision of the Gospel is 3-dimensional and only an aesthetic journey into the intersection of heaven and earth can help us begin to grasp its contours. How could it be otherwise if, as he says, the Gospel "is a story of life and how life ought to be" (118)? "The Gospel is not a subject to be studied or debated; it is a call to be given, a new life to offer" (161).
Life, then, is the context within which our journey with Livingstone into the Gospel takes place. The journey consists of three stages, each focussing on different aspect of the Gospel message. These stages are then illustrated using images from the Bible and everyday life. Stage 1 concerns New Life, which is the goal of the Gospel. Livingstone intimates what true life really is, what it is that we are all truly yearning for. This is good news for those who feel the claws of death suffocating their ability to live. He illustrates the relational nature of this new life using the metaphor of adoption. This is good news for the unloved. Finally, he closes with kingdom imagery, communicating God's good news to those sick of the way the world is run.
These images have a "demanding beauty" in that, by implication, they point out what is wrong with us. Having been shown what we are saved for, stage 2, Images of Mercy and Restoration, focuses on what we are saved from. Feeling guilty? Read about justification. Or do you rather feel that you owe something? Then read about forgiveness. Or if you've managed to work up a sense of shame in our shame-less culture, read about atonement. There's good news for everyone!
The good news of the Gospel doesn't stop at our personal lives. It is also good news for the world, and for those who care about it. The final stage, Images of Deliverance, expands the horizon to include the broader forces of evil in the world which God's good news repudiates. The chapter on salvation deals with evil in general, whether we are its cause or its victim. Images of ransom and redemption show us the price that we are worth and that God paid to save us. And finally, to form an inclusio with the opening chapter on "life," Livingstone talks of the joy of the "freedom" to live God's life, which is our true life.
Picturing the Gospel does just that, but it barely scratches the surface. Livingstone hints at further visual possibilities: new creation, reconciliation, healing and sanctification, to name a few. For me at least, he has provided enough material to work on for a lifetime. Though the book is clearly and eloquently, even poetically, written, I often had the feeling of standing on the edge of something too big to grasp, something that will require study, meditation and application to fully grasp. It is helpful, therefore, that Livingstone provides us with a series of exercises at the end in order to help us let these images "sink in" and ultimately transform us. It is here that it becomes clear that the Gospel is not only something for those outside the fold, it is an ongoing call and challenge to those who have already responded to truly appropriate what has been offered to us. This is a book for both believers and unbelievers alike.