Review of God’s Favorite Place on Earth by Frank Viola
By COYLE NEAL
I am probably not the right person to be reviewing this book. Despite being an Evangelical for as long as I can remember, the majority of my devotional reading has been restricted either to openly bad theology (mostly in my high school years) or to spectacularly good/practical works. (I take full responsibility for the bad; credit for the good goes to some wonderful guides and advisors from the churches I have been involved in.) I have tended to pass by the bulk of the fuzzy, mushy fluff that apparently pervades the evangelical devotional market. Which is basically the category into which God’s Favorite Place on Earth (GFPE) should be placed—it’s not theologically deep, expositionally illuminating, or practically challenging. It’s just another in a long line of books challenging us to pray like Jabez, hear Jesus calling, or be wild at heart.
And on that note, like our beloved President, I have to be clear: this book is fine. Not spectacular, not terrible, just fine. My objections are largely matters of emphasis and exegesis (which I’ll get into below), rather than issues of substance or content. I do not believe anyone who reads, enjoys, and employs the arguments in this book will be damaged in any way—and they may even benefit from doing so.
That being said, this book could have been a lot more useful than it is.
GFPE is Frank Viola’s interpretation of Jesus’ time and actions in Bethany. Each of the six chapters (“Appreciating Bethany,” “Awed in Bethany,” “Awakened in Bethany,” “Anointed in Bethany,” Ascended in Bethany,” “Anticipating Bethany”) walks through Jesus’ acts and encounters in the small town near Jerusalem. Each chapter begins with a novelization of the Biblical narrative from Lazarus’ perspective, followed by a section titled “the Sacred Text” in which the relevant Scriptural passages are given. The chapter concludes with a section called “Walking It Out”, in which Viola shares his reflections on the passages. At the end of the book is a series of questions for small groups called “Talking it Over.”
GFPE has a number of points in its favor. First, Viola does an excellent job of reminding us that Jesus is both our King and our friend, not just in some vague spiritual sense, but right here and now. Whether we are suffering or prospering, GFPE reminds us that we ought to be entirely focused on Christ.
Second, some of Viola’s practical reflections on the death and resurrection of Lazarus are exceptionally good.
Jesus allowed Lazarus to die. And in so doing, He allowed two precious women to lose their only brother. And all the while, Jesus loved Lazarus, Mary, and Martha and regarded them as friends. Keep this in mind the next time you get sick, lose a loved one, or face a crisis or tragedy. The Lord allows painful things to happen to those He loves. He allows tragedy to befall His friends. Yet He loves you while you’re sick. And He loves you even after you die. (92)
Viola later gives a wonderful reflection on the fact that in Lazarus’ resurrection we see a picture of the regeneration and new life that conquers death and comes with faith in the Gospel (112-113).
Likewise, Viola’s thoughts on the tears of Christ for Lazarus and His cared for the family even in their grief (especially pgs 97-100) are excellent and worth extended attention (though, alas, too long to post here).
Finally, I should note that Viola is a decent writer. And that is saying something in an age when anyone with too much time on their hands can crank out a book (check out the wife’s blog if you want to read about some great/terrible things that have made it into print—this is possibly the best example, but this one by a Christian writer is worth a read too). I certainly appreciated that Viola’s prose is crisp and clear and that GFPE is a smooth and easy read.
There are two weaknesses in this book that, while not necessarily negating the strengths, at the very least offset them enough to make this more of a “meh” book than an excellent one.
The first is exegetical. Viola seems to have a bee in his bonnet that he has elevated to the level of a Scriptural trope. Consider the following:
Jesus is looking for a Bethany in every heart, every home, and every church.
So take the high ground and be a Bethany for the Savior.
He is worthy of nothing less. (182)
In these statements, Viola isn’t making an argument about geography (usually). He is claiming that we should all treat Jesus as the four folks from Bethany mentioned in the Bible treated Jesus. Just as Lazarus, Mary, Martha, and Simon the Leper all followed Jesus and provided a physical place where He could be at home, so too should we make our hearts, homes, and churches into s spiritual Bethany—a place where Jesus is welcome.
There are two exegetical problems with this approach to interpreting Scripture.
First, in order to make his case Viola goes beyond Scripture in ways that I’m not convinced are always necessary or appropriate. (Though Viola tells us that his claims are based on the best scholarship ( 12), this is never really supported; other than Scripture, the book most often cited in GFPE is another work by Viola himself.) For example, as a major defense of his argument that Bethany was Jesus’ favorite place, Viola claims that Jesus stayed in Bethany during the last week of his life because that’s the place He most wanted to be—where He most felt at home. Leaving aside the explicit statement in Scripture that Jesus had no home (Matthew 8:20), we simply aren’t told why he stayed in Bethany that week. It might have been because He felt most at home there. But it also might have been because it was Passover week and Jerusalem was packed—once again there was no room at the inn. It might also have been because Jesus was poor and couldn’t afford to stay in Jerusalem, and so had to crash on the couch of a friend (we’ve all been there—right?). Or there may have been reasons we can’t even imagine (and given how God tends to work, that would be my bet). This is but one example of Viola’s pattern of attributing motives to Jesus without adequate Scriptural basis.
The second exegetical problem is Viola’s expansion of Bethany itself as a type and model for Christian life beyond appropriate limits. There are of course ways in which people, places, and events in Scripture acts as tropes by setting an example for the believer, but we should be careful not to push this too far. For example, Viola makes much of the fact that Jesus was “accepted” at Bethany, therefore we should all be a Bethany (and, as noted above, therefore Bethany was God’s favorite place). However, when we apply this interpretive method to other places/people who accepted Jesus, I think we pretty quickly see that this is perhaps not the best way to go about reading Scripture.
- Jesus is looking for a Samaritan well in every heart, every home, and every church.
- So take the high ground and be a Samaritan well for the Savior.
- He is worthy of nothing less.
- Jesus is looking for a Roman centurion in every heart, every home, and every church.
- So take the high ground and be a Roman centurion for the Savior.
- He is worthy of nothing less.
- Jesus is looking for a town called Nain in every heart, every home, and every church.
- So take the high ground and be a town called Nain for the Savior.
- He is worthy of nothing less.
There certainly is something true to each of these statements, but they should be kept in perspective and not be blown out of proportion so that they become definitive for the Christian life.
In addition to the exegetical issue, there is a related issue of theological emphasis that also needs to be addressed.
The Jesus pictured in GFPE is fully God and fully man. He is loving and compassionate, and cares a great deal for the life, trials, and death of His people. But how does He do all of these things? By and large, the Jesus of GFPE cares for us as a sibling and a close friend, as a concerned physician and counselor, as an involved neighborhood watch captain and support group leader, as an attentive CEO and a dutiful superior officer, and as a King and Lord. Viola is quite clear Jesus cares for his people in ways that should blow our minds—especially as pictured in his interactions with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
And yet, what’s not quite at the center of this book is the ultimate and most basic demonstration of Christ’s care for us. He comes across clearly as a physician, councilor, friend, brother, and king. What we don’t see much of in GFPE is Jesus as a bloody sacrifice, a Savior who yanks us off our well-deserved path to hell and goes there in our place, an atonement for our sin bearing the weight of God’s wrath in agony on a tree. And quite frankly unless Jesus is these things for us, He is our judge and enemy rather than our friend and comforter.
And I suppose at the end of the day, that’s what’s really missing from Viola’s book—there is no mention of Jesus’ wrath, other than a passing glance at his anger at the general existence of death (96). The idea that Jesus has a specific anger focused on sin and sinners is simply absent. And when we ignore the fact that, because of God’s holy and righteous anger, outside of Christ we are all headed directly for hell—that if we are not under His blood as the Redeemer we are under His justice as Judge—we lose the reason for our salvation and are left with a superficial feel-good message that ignores the very personal nature of the evil of man, the holiness of God, and the greatness of salvation in reconciling those to each other.
What’s more, if this Gospel of the forgiveness of sin through the substitutionary death of Christ isn’t the pulsing heartbeat of a book, then in any meaningful spiritual sense the book can never have more than a shallow and limited usefulness.
With that said, I also have to note that GFPE isn’t completely without the Gospel (it gets a couple of nods in the text), but having to continually read the basics of the Christian message into a book significantly diminishes the book’s devotional value.
Again, if this long review gets anything across, it’s that God’s Favorite Place on Earth is perfectly adequate, if you’re already a Christian and can assume the missing theological foundation. While that may not be the best way to write a devotional book, it certainly seems to be the trend these days, and we can hardly fault an author for doing what everyone else does.
This book was provided for free by the publisher in connection with the Patheos Book Club, on the condition that I review it. I was not required to write a positive review.
Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Politics at Southwest Baptist University.