Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 05/02/2010 by Bob Kellemen.
Recommended. Offers a spiritual or practical theology of life based upon his reading of the Bible's meta-narrative.
Over the past forty years, Larry Crabb has branched out from psychologist, to Christian counselor, to spiritual director. His latest book, 66 Love Letters, continues that trend as he offers a spiritual or practical theology of life based upon his reading of the Bible's meta-narrative.
It was fascinating to read Crabb's take on the grand narrative of the Bible while simultaneously reading Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity. McLaren alternates between denying that there is a meta-narrative in Scripture, to saying that any meta-narrative is a power ploy of the majority culture, to stating (without any historic proof) that the historic Creation, Fall, Redemption, Narrative is diseased by Greco-Roman thought, to claiming that he has single-handedly discovered the Bible's true meta-narrative (but that’s a review for another day).
Whether or not one agrees with Crabb's summary of the grand sweep of the Bible, one must applaud Crabb and contrast Crabb with McLaren. For Crabb confidently and consistently clings to the sufficiency and authority of God's Word for life and practice. He takes God at His word as he reads and attempts to comprehensively summarize His Word. He expresses dismay at "how fond we've become of receiving visions and hearing prophetic words...that bypass the Bible and diminish the importance of knowing its content...with little understanding of the larger story of the Bible (pp. xix-xx).
The Story of the Bible
Crabb's focus is crystal clear. "I wanted to arrange summary sentences of each book into the story God was telling in the Bible. I wanted to know the plot and to see how each chapter (each of the sixty-six books) advanced the plot" (p. xvii). His summation of the Bible's meta-narrative is equally unmistakable. "The Bible is a love story that begins with a divorce. Everything from the third chapter of Genesis through the end of Revelation is the story of a betrayed lover wooing us back into His arms so we can enjoy the love of family forever" (p. xviii).
Among those who accept the historic Creation, Fall, Redemption Narrative motif, some would argue about the "love story" conceptualization. However, Crabb is in good company here. Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas Boston, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Charles Hodge, and many other Church Fathers, Reformers, and Puritans taught the "love story motif."
No one should imagine that this becomes, for Crabb, some "touchy-feely" focus on the self. Rather, Crabb repeatedly emphasizes that we must join God's story, not the other way around. We sinfully assume that God's agenda revolves around ours. Instead, God is not here for us, we are here for Him. Joy comes when we ask what holiness would look like as we follow God on each leg of our journey.
Nor does it become a focus on "wounds" and "therapy." Crabb eschews that mindset. He sees our deepest problem not to be our "woundedness" but "evil unadmitted, unchecked, unforgiven, and unchanged" (p. 55). God refuses to fix all that we see as wrong
The Story Developed in Individual Books
Throughout 66 Love Letters Crabb provides sentence summaries and chapter-length development of every book of the Bible. Of course, if any pastor, theologian, professor, or counselor were to write their summary of each of the 66 books of the Bible, everyone would disagree with at least some of those abridgments. The bigger question should be, "Is the movement of the summaries in line with an accurate interpretation and application of the big picture of the story God is telling in the Bible?"
While anyone might disagree with or word differently some of Crabb's individual book summaries, it is easy to see Crabb’s fidelity to Evangelical thinking about the gospel. He repeatedly emphasizes God's overarching message: sin, grace, repentance, brokenness before a holy God, self-worshiping rebellion, radical servanthood, self-denial, no gospel without the cross, no salvation without Christ, no spiritual formation without suffering, our root problem as idolatrous self-love and inexcusable self-centeredness.
It's always a difficult process to move from accurately understanding the original context and message of a book, to the global theme/message of a book for God's people, and then to specific application for today. Crabb's goal is to do this with every book of the Bible while aligning with the theme of a narrative love story.
At times, he seems spot on, especially when he emphasizes the immediate historical context, such as with 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. As Crabb says, using God as the Narrator, "You will need a little background to hear Me well in Ezra. Never underestimate the value of studying My letters before meditating on them" (p. 69).
With Nehemiah, rather than seeing it as "leadership principles for today" (how many of us have heard sermons like that from Nehemiah?), he captures the immediate and enduring message of our role in God's sovereign plan. "Whatever anyone does out of a sincere desire to know Me and draw others to Me is a great work” (p. 74).
Those times when Crabb doesn't seem to nail it feel more like he is shoe-horning concepts important in his past writings into the Bible book he's studying. A case in point is 1 Kings. For Crabb, Solomon's prayer for wisdom was wrong because his desire to be effective in handling life was stronger than his desire to be holy in the middle of life's challenges. "Prioritizing managerial efficiency over personal holiness opens the door to sin spinning out of control" (p. 50). It's difficult to argue against this as a wisdom principle. However, it's hard to find this in Solomon's prayer for wisdom, especially since God Himself honors the prayer and Solomon for praying it.
While I've focused on the Old Testament, please don’t miss Crabb's encapsulations of the New Testament. He's right on target with his central themes for the four Gospels. His searing, convicting applicational summaries of the Epistles made reading that section time-consuming...lots of time for reflection and repentance.
He focuses consistently on doctrine applied to life. Abridging Romans, he writes, "Organize your thinking into clear doctrine. Truth matters. Doctrine matters. Orthodoxy matters. But keep moving, not beyond truth but into truth" (p. 238). Contrast that with the current "in" approach of ignoring doctrine and making up our own truth. Or, the equally extreme approach of truth and doctrine separated from life and relationships.
Listen to Larry and God "Chat"
Readers unfamiliar with Crabb's writing style may be in for a surprise. He has always been one of the most real and raw Evangelical writers you'll ever read. Reading Crabb in 66 Love Letters is like reading Jeremiah lamenting as he reads the entire Bible. Then for 66 books it's like listening to God as he responds to Job. You're listening in on Crabb's intimate conversations with God where he's asking deeply honest and personal questions, and receiving authoritative and loving responses
Crabb is candid about his struggles. He's honest about his questions. But what a huge difference between Crabb and questions and McLaren and questions. McLaren is candid about his questions, then basically makes up his answers. You get the gospel according to Brian. You get God in the image of Brian. Crabb is candid about his questions. Then he turns to God's Word to listen and learn. You get the gospel according to God. You get God in God’s image.
66 Love Letters is not a book to read in one sitting, no more than you would attempt to read the Bible in one sitting. It's a book for reflection—deep personal reflection. You may not agree with every theme in every book. However, you will be challenged to read and apply God's Word, book by book, in light of the grand theme, the great story God is telling.
I think of 66 Love Letters as something of Larry Crabb's opus. Readers familiar with his writings will hear themes from his other books. Here they are even deeper, richer, and more closely connected to the text of Scripture. Larry Crabb is passionate about knowing the all-holy God of the universe through Christ and about entering into a humble, personal relationship—an eternal dance—with the Trinity. And he's passionate about doing so through the all-sufficient, authoritative Word of God.