Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 01/06/2009 by Mark Tubbs.
Recommended. Despite shortchanging the atonement, a helpful book that points to Christ.
In the evangelical world variations of the following are heard with concerning frequency:
“I’m in a desert place right now.
“I need more of Jesus.”
“I feel so far away from God.”
“I need to get right with God.”
In answer to these types of desperate utterances, Mark Atteberry offers a ‘free refill’ of Jesus. Or more accurately, Jesus offers a free refill of himself. Atteberry is merely a direction marker towards the thirst-quenching well for those who have lost the map. This book – this Jesus – is for the frustrated, the stressed, the pained, and the hurt, to mention but a few. Long-time pastor of Poinciana Christian Church in Florida, Atteberry has encountered these issues arising in the lives of his parishioners for decades now, and has faced them in his own life: the dryness, the lack, the distance, the woundedness.
Lest you think this book will be long on therapy and short on gospel, let me assure you that Atteberry is solidly rooted in the doctrines of the Christian faith. At times he is mellow, and at others he is hard-hitting. Whichever tone he takes, his concern is pastoral and his sights are on Christ. But even as a pastor, as he admits, it doesn’t always feel like faith is growing:
Yes, I know faith isn’t supposed to dwindle. But this isn’t a perfect world, and things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to. It doesn’t always snow on Christmas. The ideal couple doesn’t always live happily ever after. The Cardinals don’t always win the World Series. And Christians aren’t always brimming with faith.
This book doesn’t promise to solve the dilemma of dwindling faith, and it certainly doesn’t promise to refill your faith in and of itself. But it does say two important things: firstly, that in dealing with dwindling faith, you’re not alone among Christians, and secondly, that Christ promises ‘free refills’ of faith in his presence, his words, his promises, his love, his goodness, his victory, and his return. The aforementioned subjects double as the book’s chapter titles, and in each chapter Atteberry teases out various applications of the Bible stories he retells.
How I wish I could conclude the review here. But to be balanced, just, and above all, biblical, I cannot. I do have some complaints with the content.
First a minor point of contention:
Atteberry claims Jesus didn’t enumerate the sins of the woman at the well – well, yes he did (John 4:17-18). Later, he says the Samaritan woman has “had her heart broken at least five times.” How can we possibly know this? Isn’t it more likely – based on the people Jesus often consorted with – that she is the adulteress herself? Or to be a bit more charitable, perhaps she is the home-wrecker two or three out of the five times? The point is that we cannot know definitively either way. We should believe the best, but by the same token we should avoid minimizing sin as well.
And now a major one:
At the end of the first chapter, I thought Atteberry’s treatment of the atonement (26) was quite weak:
God was pleased to crush Jesus, and there’s a very important reason why. He knew that crushing Jesus was the only way to build a bridge of understanding between Heaven and earth. Without that bridge, we would feel cut off and alone in times of temptation and suffering.
To be sure, those who are tempted and suffering need a word of comfort, but comfort does not come at the expense of the multi-faceted reasons for the atonement – the main reason being God’s desire to exalt His own Name above all, via the death of His Son. Every time I read Atteberry’s passage (and the surrounding context on the page) it seems to me that he is holding the theological tarpaulin down over the most tremendous truths of the atonement. Tragically, the very truths that Atteberry has not touched upon are the ones by which the Christian is supremely comforted. As John Piper has said,
I am aware that these things seem emotionally distant and unrelated to the personal pains of many. In our quiet daily miseries of marriage or parenting or loneliness or sickness or depression, we may feel that all this talk about the grandeur of God is like trying to heal a bruised heart with a tire iron. I know that God is tender, and that personal fellowship with him is sweet, and that touching the heart happens through the brokenness of the still, small voice. I know this, and I love it. Jesus Christ is a precious friend to me. But I also know...I will need a way of seeing the world that involves more than the tenderness of God. If pestilence takes out tens of thousands of my fellow citizens and half my church, my mental and spiritual survival will depend on more than the precious gifts of God’s intimacy. (Spectacular Sins)
I hope it is clear that I am not comparing Atteberry’s writing to that of Piper’s, which would be like comparing apples and oranges. I also recognize that the intent of Free Refill is quite different from that of Spectacular Sins. However, a description of the atonement that merely “builds a bridge of understanding between Heaven and earth” is only a bandaid, not a healing salve, for the wounded heart. Atteberry makes a couple of other sentimental, schlocky statements that I truly could not square with the rest of the book, for at many other points Atteberry proves that he does not operate under the authorial tendencies of so many contemporary Christian writers. He is not afraid to say that God is worthy to be feared, that God will not always work on our timetable, that Jesus could be offensive and even antisocial, and that we cannot “expect him to always rock [our] world. It should be enough” – and here I found myself repeating ‘yes, yes, yes!’ – “It should be enough just to know he is near.” Those four words, “It should be enough,” deal a devastating blow to the man-centered Christianity that abounds in these times. Despite living in a discontentment-oriented culture, God should be enough.
“Who should read this book?” is an important clarifying question. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book to informed laypeople. For someone who has read Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God or The Jesus I Never Knew, parts of Free Refill will be redundant. Here’s who this book was written for: those whose shaky faith experiences the twists and turns and ups and downs of a roller-coaster; those who know only surface details of episodes in the life of Christ; those whose spiritual walk cannot [yet] be described as Christ-centered. For these, this book is a good starting point. Despite the issues raised above, Atteberry has provided a generally solid, Christ-centered book written in a popular style that should leave you thirsting for more of the Savior.
Oh, and congratulations to studiogearbox for a brilliant cover design. This is a slim hardcover volume that's a pleasure to have on my bookshelf.