Monday, June 09, 2014

Book Review: Angels, Miracles, and Heavenly Encounters by James Stuart Bell

Christian publishing Veteran, James Stuart Bell, has compiled a new book, Angels, Miracles, and Heavenly Encounters, about supernatural events that happen in the lives of Christians. These events, which range from healings, to visions, to divine protection, to angelic intervention, might seem extraordinary to many but are quite commonplace among Christians, and Christians -- like Mary-- often treasure these instances when the veil is removed and the numinous and the holy enters their lives with its sweetness, health, and power.

These forty-four first-person stories of the marvelous wonders of God will strengthen the faith of Christians and encourage those who have not seen God or who have not experienced any supernatural events opening their minds to the possibility that the God of Miracles is very much at work in the lives of believers today.

Some of the testimonies, such as "Hear No Evil" concern protection -- even when the person being protected is unaware of it. Some tell of comfort, as in Pam Zollman's "A Secret for Five" in which a woman on the verge of a divorce receives prayer and "a word of knowledge" from a stranger who seemed to know everything about her life. Some, like Kristin H. Carden's "Beyond the Fear of Death" are about near-death or after-death experiences. Some are accounts of miraculous provision, such as Beverly LaHote Schwind's "The Lasagna Multiplication Miracle." Some are of seeing spirits --known or unknown. Whether divinely helped or being the divine helper, as in Suzan Klassen's "A Shield from Danger," these Christians found themselves in a holy connection between heaven and earth.

The book is a quick and easy read and also a good addition to any library. There are a few caveats, however. The first is merely nit-picking, the second is more substantial. First, the nit-picking: Many of these stories are ghostwritten -- in a kind of Christian writing style that Christians are used to-- and it gives the testimonies a bland Christian magazine uniformity. True, most people are not writers and testimonies probably need to be edited as all writings need to be edited, but the sameness and the writerliness of these testimonies make the stories lack distinct personality.

The second caveat, which is vastly more important, is the interpretation often laid upon the spiritual encounter. Most Christian testimonies have a moral at the end, so interpretations of a divine incident is necessary, and for the most part, the "take-away" interpretations of these supernatural events are Christian. But some are not. The interpretations are "spiritualized" but somewhat unBiblical. In the Bible, Christians are warned to judge all supernatural events, to test the spirits whether they are of God or not.  Most Christians, for instance, would be wary of assuming a spirit is a dead relative and would need true discernment to ascertain whether a spirit presenting as "Mom" is really Mom or just a demon posing as Mom. Therefore, even when a book purports to be written about God, a Christian should read the book with discernment.
The first story that was problematical was "Seeing Things in a Different Light" by Tina Samples. In it she relates how her Uncle Kenneth returned from war with blindness. However, after the church prayed, his sight was miraculously restored. . .for one day. Thereafter Uncle Kenneth was blind for the rest of his life.

Samples interprets this as God healing Uncle Kenneth as "a gift -- a celebration of life-- and a reminder that God is still gracious even when we experience devastations." She goes on to write that Uncle Kenneth learned to see all things in a different light-- even God." Perhaps this interpretation is true-- it is certainly beautiful and spiritual sounding-- but it flies in the face of Scriptures that tell believers how to get and retain a healing.

Verses such as:
When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.  Matthew 12:43-45
Or Scriptures that speak of how faith and healing can be stolen by the faithlessness of others. Verses such as:
Take heed therefore how ye hear: for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have. Luke 8:18
Or the healing of the Blind Man near Bethsaida, a city Jesus cursed because of the unbelieving hearts of its inhabitants.
And he (Jesus) cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. And he sent him away to his house, saying, Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town. Mark 8:22-26
or various admonitions about "holding tightly to what one has", or "resisting the devil."

The testimony and its interpretation might be part of a beloved family tradition but beloved family traditions, however close to the heart, should be challenged sometimes. Although interpretations of personal spiritual encounters are "between a person and his God," it is quite possible that the result of a spiritual encounter is not what God desired at all, and that Uncle Kenneth's family and church created a pretty theology out of a failure because they did not fully understand what had happened. It's possible someone at the family celebration planted a seed of unbelief (a wonderful beautiful theology of unbelief) that affected Uncle Kenneth's healing. It is possible that the church brought about Uncle Kenneth's healing but failed to teach Uncle Kenneth how to hold and retain his healing. The Bible declares the devil comes to steal, to kill, and to destroy and that God is light and God does all things well, but the testimony here challenges that -- in a spiritual way of course.

Another testimony which was problematic was the near death experience related by Ingrid Shelton, "The Tall Visitor."  The author declares a spirit, probably a spirit of death, came to retrieve her for her journey to the author life, but a voice told the spirit to take another boy and to leave Ingrid to live. Toward the end of the testimony, however, the author writes, "Yet from the day the death angel had bent my upper body to the ground, I began to develop scoliosis. Was it to be a reminder of my encounter with spiritual forces? I wondered."

Questionable. True, Jacob had a limp for the rest of his life after his encounter with the angel. But to use this Biblical story to show God as the creator of illness is somewhat akin to the devil using Psalm 91 to tempt Jesus to throw himself off the top of the temple. It is possible the angel of death was not from God. It is also possible the angel of death was from God but the devil used the opportunity to create illness, especially if someone nearby made a "spiritual" comment about the incident. It is possible the medications in the hospital affected an already weakened area of Shelton's body.

The compiler/editor should have added an insightful introduction which explored and discussed the many possible facets of a Christian's encounter with the supernatural. However, it is a common trait among many Christian editors to do simple compilations without adding a theological discussion at the end or beginning of the book.

This book is recommended because it shows the world a living God who still does miracles and it shows the supernatural nature of the world. However, the following advice from Jesus should be heeded because while some of the testimonies in this book will add to one's faith, other testimonies might plant spiritual seeds which depict God as the unpredictable cause of sickness or as a trickster who destroys aspects of a person's health to make them more spiritual.
Take heed therefore how ye hear: for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have. Luke 8:18

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