Retelling the Old, Old Story: A Review of "God's Favorite Place on Earth"
From the story of the raising of Lazarus, for example, he offers the hard but necessary lesson that God does not exist to answer our prayers or meet our expectations. God's timetable is His own, God's purposes beyond our understanding, as the sidelong reference to Job suggests. Too many of us have a transactional faith, which is both too simple and demeaning to God. It is an inferior faith, as Mr. Viola suggests: "If you've not yet met the God who refuses to meet all your expectations, you will. And how you react in that day will reveal whether you have been worshipping Jesus Christ or Santa Claus. It will show whether or not you love God more than His promises (or your interpretation of those promises)." (117)
The retelling of Mary's anointing of Jesus with ointment also offers lots of teaching opportunities, and it's amazing how well Mr. Viola makes that perplexing and scandalously sensual story come to life spiritually. Mary sees the ultimate worth of Jesus, she offers something of incredible value for the incredible value he represents for her, and she is rebuked for it. Here, Mr. Viola's teaching gets into the day-to-day transactions of the life of the faithful, and becomes perhaps most valuable.
Christians will hurt your feelings, he notes (and Jesus understood this as well—witness the entire 18th chapter of Matthew, the Discourse on Life in the Faithful Community). How we respond to that pain will reveal the depth of our spiritual maturity. Christians are often offended by the actions of other Christians ("Christians are the most easily offended people in the world," he writes, "when we should be the least"). (157) Ultimately, we choose what we will do with the hurt others have offered us. You can choose to be offended and nurture that offense; you can choose to bring your hurt to God; you can offer that pain at the foot of the Cross, "let it go, and move on"; sometimes God (or time) will reveal that we have completely misunderstood the actions of the one who offended. (158)
Lazarus understands why Bethany mattered to Jesus: it was "an oasis for Christ in a world hostile toward Him," a place where Jesus could rest, reflect, and find peace. (179) But for us, Bethany is a place of stories—stories retold, reconsidered, and reflected back upon our own stories. For taking us along on the journey to God's favorite place and introducing us in a new way to Jesus' favorite people, I am thankful for this book.
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Greg Garrett is the author of works of fiction, criticism, and theology, including Faithful Citizenship from Patheos Press. He is Professor of English at Baylor University, and a licensed lay preacher in the Episcopal Church.