14 February 2011

Book Review: If You Want To Walk On Water, You've Got To Get Out Of The Boat by John Ortberg

I bought this on a friend's recommendation, although they didn't give me much detail about the book, so I came it relatively blind, and had also not read anything else by Ortberg. My first impression, flicking through the chapter titles, sub-headings and notes at the back, was that this was a self-help book dressed up as pop-theology. Going through the early chapters, however, it did seem a lot better than I had feared.

That said, it is certainly no theological tome. In terms of Paul's spiritual milk/meat analogy, this is pretty watered down milk. The whole premise is on the passage in Matthew 14, shortly after the feeding of the 5,000+ where Peter is said to have got have the boat and walked on water for a very short period of time. It is interesting that the author skips over the parallel passages in Mark and John (it is never mentioned in Luke) where Jesus is said to have to walked on water, but in which no mention is made of Peter having done the same. Nor is there any discussion on the translation from the Greek where the word that is commonly translated as “on” has an equally acceptable translation of “over.”

So, having recognised this as not being a rigorous, comprehensive study, what are we to make of it? Well, it has to be noted that is extremely american in its style. Littered with bad spelling, bad English and inaccurate terminology, (e.g. saying that Winston Churchill “repeated a grade at elementary school”) it did frustrate me, like trying to drive a car whose engine keeps spluttering every now and again. There is also some evidence of flawed theological thinking in it. For example, Ortberg seems to have very little understanding of resurrection theology, stating that we will ultimately live in heaven, thus ignoring scriptural teaching about the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. Also, he treats the resurrection of Jesus very casually by suggesting that on the third day after dying, “he woke up feeling good.” The last point which annoyed me, and I will get on to the praise shortly, is the questions at the end of each chapter. Again this comes very much from the americanised origins of this book, in that the author gives very leading questions, framed in a manner in which one does not normally think. I felt a little bit like Donnie Darko when he was asked to place certain situations of a scale of fear to love, frustrated that the question did not allow for a nuanced answer, taking into account the complexities of real life.

But with the criticisms aside, there is a good substantial heart to this book. It is mainly about courage and fear and the trepidations we have about making bold decisions. Mercifully, the author is quite sober-minded in that he does not encourage us to pursue all potential callings with reckless abandon, but rather that we take a considered approach to life; but that once that decision is made, our focus has to be on Jesus. Each chapter sets out its stall at the beginning and is well constructed, with all key points highlighted, just in case you'd skimmed over them once already. I was trying to think of who the key target audience are. Certainly it is aimed at the american market, with the cultural-specific references and mildly jingoistic overtones, though I was less sure about the age demographic which seems a little more universal.

So would I recommend it? Yes. It could do with a bit of rewrite, to remove some cultural specific references that are not universal, and also to correct the spelling mistakes and dodgy theology, but overall it is a valued contribution to christian lifestyle literature.

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