Did I read more enjoyable books? Yup.
Is this one written with a grace that sings? Not especially.
Did the story keep me up late? Not at all. The only reason I didn't fall asleep was that I often could read it fast, speed-skating over big chunks of material.
Did it change my life? Not really.
But J. Richard Middleton's A New Heavens and a New Earth was and is the most influential book I read in the last year.
Once upon a time, America was blessed with a Secretary of the Interior from Colorado, a pious believer driven fiercely by his commitment to Christ. His name was James J. Watt. Just exactly what Watt believed and didn't remains somewhat controversial, but he was a devout dispensationalist Christian who fervently assumed, as many do, in the imminent return of Jesus Christ. If you truly and deeply believe that "the trumpet will sound" tomorrow, if not the next day, your attitude toward this world has to be affected. Watt's was. His tenure as Secretary of the Interior--for which he was an odd, odd choice--was as stormy as it was short, just two years.
Middleton's A New Heaven and a New Earth begins by disparaging the James J. Watts of the world. Middleton claims that our views of eschatology--our view of the end of time--not only affect our views of the here-and-now, but are sometimes--in fact, most often--dead wrong. Somewhere along the line, Christians got on a ship going the wrong way, and we've been out to sea ever since.
Middleton pledges he will never again use the word heaven in polite conversation. How's that for radical? He'll simply delete it from his vocabulary, not because he doesn't believe in a glorious afterlife--he does; not because he doesn't believe in Jesus Christ--he does; but because he believes scripture is clear about end times, and what it offers us is right there in the title of the study: A New Heaven and a New Earth.
Middleton's argument is not new, but I'd never seen it argued so comprehensively. Because what he's asking believers to believe is so controversial--there is no "heaven"!--he feels compelled to run down every last scriptural reference and study them in context. He attempts to put a lock on what he considers the Bible says; to wit, that there is no platform of hyper-space to which we'll ascend, no pearly gates, no streets of gold, no flights of heavenly angels in a half-empty choir loft that awaits our arrival.
What he argues is nothing less than "God so loved the world," that He loves his creation and wants to make it flower, that the afterlife won't be stamped with some stratospheric zip code but be, for all intents and purposes, the here and now, more precisely here and redemptively then.
Am I convinced? Well, maybe. The Bible, a story of love and truth and wisdom, is always easier to get wrong than right. On that score, we've got a perfectly abysmal track record. We never win. If there's one thing true about all of us and our persuasions, it is that we never get the story right, despite the fervent reaches of our piety. It's really all about grace, about what we don't have coming, about the goods only God almighty can and does deliver. We get it wrong, but he loves us anyway--that's the gospel.
For better or worse, I'll always be wary of anyone who claims to know the whole truth, even people like Middleton, theologians with whom I certainly share a species of the Christian faith.
Somehow I don't think he'd fault my doubt. A little of it goes a long ways in this world.
But not the next, and that's the point, really. Middleton says John the Baptist's annoyance at Christ's slow ascension to power--"are you the Christ or look we for another?"--is a peculiar problem: "He expected too much, too quickly."
Historically, however many Christians have had the opposite problem. We have not expected enough. And what we have expected, we have often delayed until "heaven" and the return of Christ. We have not really believed that God cares about this world of real people in their actual historical situations, which often are characterized by oppression and suffering. Our understanding of salvation has been characterized by an unbiblical otherworldliness. So our expectations of the future have often not reflected the full-orbed good news that Jesus proclaimed at Nazareth.I think Middleton's right.
Someone asked me yesterday to name the most influential book I've read in the last year. I savored novels and histories I loved more than this one. I read stories I found much more difficult to put down. I read books I poured over slowly, lovingly. Middleton's wasn't one of them.
But A New Heavens and a New Earth was the most influential book I read in the last year. Its argument profoundly concerns life and death and life once again in a kingdom newly realized.
In that sense, I've still not put it down and probably never will.