Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Book Review: The Shack:

Preliminary Matters

I usually stay far away from the Contemporary Christian Fiction category. Like the Contemporary Christian Music genre, I find it to be, in general, of an inferior quality and shallow in content and significant thought. There are, of course, exceptions in the CCM genre that I have discovered and love to listen to, but I cannot, when considered as genre, stomach the shallow and cheesy lyrics, inferior music, and extremely irritating DJs on their radio stations. But even though I have looked for and discovered exceptions in the CCM genre, I have not even bothered in the CCF category. I read and greatly enjoy C.S. Lewis, but everything I have looked at coming out today is like eating unsalted grits off the floor in comparison to a top sirloin steak at a 5 star restaurant. You can listen to a song, roll your eyes, and forget about it, but to invest the time to read books that will most likely be a complete waste of time is somehow less appealing.

My whole point in saying this is that The Shack is not the type of book I normally would pick up and read. But I kept hearing about it and the emotions connected to people’s evaluations were so strong that I felt that I had to read it to know what they were all talking about. Some people felt it was the greatest book that they had ever read. Others thought that it was heresy. I twice had people approach me after I preached at other churches and ask me if a certain statement in the book was heresy or not. This was very intriguing to me and since I had people who kept asking me if I knew anything about it or what I thought about it, I figured that it would be fun to read it and write up a review over my Christmas break. Making the prospect more fun was talking to my sister who had read in the book and had already formed very strong opinions from what she had read (negative opinions) but agreed to read it with me and both put up evaluations on our perspective blogs. I look forward to her review whenever she finishes up.

There are two types of book reviews and evaluations that I cannot stand. The first is the book review that worships a book and its author without any view at all to its faults and shortcomings. This reviewer will get angry at the slightest criticism of the book’s content or author. The other reviewer that frustrates me is the hypercritical type that refuses to interact with or engage the book or the author. This reviewer is either threatened by the slightest difference in another’s viewpoint or just enjoys ripping people apart without any recognition of the contribution of the book or reception of the potential benefit he might receive in reading it. What I have seen of people’s reviews on the recent controversial bestseller The Shack have been almost exclusively in one of the previous categories. They either love the book and are offended at the slightest criticism of it, or they hate the book, tear it apart, and begin organizing a book burning service.

There is a third type of book review however, which may be full as bad as the previous two. It’s the book review that refuses to give a real evaluation. The reviewer will say some good things and some bad things, seemingly out of obligation to both categories. He’ll conclude by saying that the book is worth reading but that there are either some things to be cautious about or some minor yet important shortcomings that one should be aware of. Before I even began reading the book, I had already decided to write such a review. I was going to point out the good things and bad things, say that the book has value but be careful for certain things. But as I think about it, how is this really interacting or any kind of an attempt at an honest review if I decide ahead of time what basically I’m going to say. A good review will point out positive and negative aspects but not out of obligation but from an honest attempt at dialogue. I do have good and bad things to say, but I am trying to give an honest reaction to the book and its contents and not just say what I should say out of an obligation to form.

This review will be an attempt to avoid all of these extremes. The Shack has invoked a lot of strong feelings both ways but it does deserve, methinks, a place in the theological conversation. It is well written and the dude writing it knows theology well. Whether Young’s theology is the correct theology or not is another matter completely.

A quick warning. If you have not read the book and plan to, I may give some things away. I don’t really think that’ll ruin the book for you as it’s not really a mystery novel or anything, but if you would rather read it first then wait on reading this. I will not even try to be sensitive to not ‘ruining the book.’

Okay, enough talking about reviewing the book… review it already!

Book Summary: If you have already read the book you can kind of skim this…


The book begins with a guy who receives a letter in the mail that proposes meeting him at The Shack if he wants to talk, signing it Papa (his wife’s favorite name for God). This invokes an angry response from ‘Mack’ and we begin to go into his past story to see why. He went on a camping trip with his kids (his wife couldn’t go for some reason – work maybe) in the wilderness of Oregon. While he is saving one of his kids from drowning in a canoeing accident, a serial killer kidnaps his 6-year-old daughter and after an extended chase and investigation, they find evidence of her murder in a little shack deep in the woods. They never find the killer and they never find the body but her bloody dress the police find in the shack leaves little doubt that she was dead. This horrific event causes what he calls ‘The Great Sadness’ to descend upon him from which he cannot seem to recover. He blames himself, is angry with God (though he masks it, sort of), and has a hard time communicating effectively with his wife and kids. On a weekend at home alone he receives this note supposedly from ‘Papa’ and there we are, all caught up.

Against, perhaps, his better judgment, he decides to go. If it’s the killer, he’s bringing a gun, if it’s God then he can voice his complaints and have at it. So he drives up to the shack at there he meets God and the real story begins.

But God is not what he expects! Instead of an ‘old white guy with a beard like Gandalf’s’, he finds a big black woman with ‘a questionable sense of humor’. For most the rest of the book he gets to know God. The father is the first person (the big black woman). The Son is a laid back Jewish Carpenter. The Holy Spirit is a small Asian woman who is really hard to see clearly. Ultimately, he gets to see how much God loves everyone and the love that is within the Trinity. What they want from him is not religion or to follow any set of rules or any set of obligations but a relationship. God (the father) listens to Her ipod, not CCM or hymns, but various secular music by musicians past present and future, all of whom She (don’t panic over the pronouns please, at least not yet) loves particularly. She doesn’t get angry with Mack or point out how or why or if he’s wrong but basically just ‘hangs out’ with him without an agenda helping him get to know Her better. Mack hangs out with each of the persons of the trinity, gets to know them and Him (at the same time). They are all God, all one, what one knows they all know, where one is they all are, yet they have different personalities and roles. God doesn’t force anything on Mack because real love ‘doesn’t force itself’ but rather He brings Mack to the place where he can know Him better and ‘heal the wound’ in their relationship. After a while (I don’t have time or space to summarize everything), he goes into a cave for judgment. But the judgment is not God judging him but he gets the chance to judge God. After judging God to be wrong for not preventing his daughter’s death he is forced to judge the world and between his children. He is told to choose two of his children to spend eternity in the ‘new heavens and earth’ and three to spend an eternity in hell. Not able to do this, he begs to be able to suffer in their place. This is the right answer because it was God’s answer, He judged them all worthy of love and sent Jesus to die in their place. Mack begins to realize that he is unworthy of being judge. He learns that it is not institutions or the legalistic following of rules that God wants but love and relationship. Mack enters into a sort of loving and intimate relationship with God, which grows throughout the book. At the end of his time with God in the shack, he is given the choice of going home and back into the world and spending eternity with God like he has been experiencing. Although difficult, he does the ‘right’ thing and goes back into the world for the sake of others (though still remaining in intimate relationship with God). The story end by his getting into a car wreck on the way back, almost dying, slowly recovering and he begins to patch up his earthly relationships and grow in his relationship with God.

Reviewing Various Aspects of the Book

View of God


One of the aspects most difficult for some to get over is viewing God as a big black woman. Criticizing the book on this grounds is not justified, methinks. Young is not saying that God is a woman but clearly affirms that God is neither male nor female, which is completely a correct and orthodox point (the Father actually appears as a man late in the book when Mack needs more of a ‘Father figure’). Nor does he anywhere call God, mother or depart from the idea of God as father. God appears as a ‘big black woman’ for two primary reasons: 1) Because Mack’s bad relationship with his father made it too difficult for him to be able to view God as a male and 2) Because Mack’s preconceived view of God was a old white man with a Gandalf beard. God manifests himself in a way that breaks his stereotypical view of God (rather than reinforcing it). Although some may have a problem with this, I do not. I think it is not only appropriate but also helpful. God is not male (or female). Both male and female are created in God’s image and in some aspect both genders represent something of who He is, the male no more or less than the female. Unfortunately there is one place where it sounds as if the female is closer to representing who God is and the male. Women (typically according to Young) find fulfillment in relationship and men in accomplishment. These both have their problems, the woman because she seeks it in men instead of God. This was stupid, wrong, and really hurt the former point he was trying to make. Men and women are different and reflect God differently. Its not a matter of one being a better or worse representation of who God is. Both were created differently for a purpose and both mess up differently. Oh well. This wasn’t a major point in the book; just a side issue that really ticks me off, so I’ll forgive it. See how wonderfully kind, gracious, and forgiving I am?

Trinity

Another very interesting aspect of the book was its representation of the Trinity and, though less prominent still present, the complications surrounding the incarnation: Jesus’ human and divine natures. Young assumes certain issues about the Trinity (economic trinity not hierarchical, mutual submission between the members of the godhead etc…), but on the whole does a very good job. It’s not perfect, of course no explanation or picture of the trinity will be, but he does a very good job representing the threeness of God and the oneness of God (more emphasis on the former, however, rather than the latter). As for the submission aspect, he has an agenda here, which I do not think I agree with, all, of course, based upon his understanding of relationship. I’m not going to go into length about any nitpicky stuff regarding his portrayal of the Trinity. Overall I think he did a very good job with it and the imperfections are more related to the genre (Fiction) than to any heresy or unorthodox theology.

The Father


As far as his view of the Father, I think he did a good job overall once again. The issue he is most trying to correct, methinks, is the view that the Father is the unloving, harsh, and ‘mean’ person of the Trinity. He rightly shows that the Father loves His children and that sending Jesus to the cross was a difficult (can I use that word?) thing for him as well. It was very helpful to see him portray what God loving people looked like. ‘Papa’ takes a very special interest in all of ‘Her’ children. She wants a relationship with them and desires good for them. It’s very easy to think of God’s love as a cold love thought of only in distant theological demonstrations, the decision to elect, the sending of Jesus, and the provision of forgiveness and eternal life. These are all good and indispensable. But thinking of God as loving in the way humans are expected to love, laughing with us, rejoicing with us, crying with us, taking interest in us, caring for our smallest concerns, knowing us intimately, helps to bring home what God’s love means in our daily life in ways that we can more readily understand. This was very helpful for me and corrective to some of my ‘cold theology.’

Jesus

His view of Jesus was both good and bad. Young does a good job, I think, of capturing the human and divine natures of Jesus without division, separation, etc…. He has good and solid explanations of Jesus’ miracles; they are done through the power of the Holy Spirit as a human being, not by his own power. Jesus is very Jewish and very human, which is good, but very cool, laid back, and relaxed, which is far far far too simplistic. The visions of Jesus post-resurrection are so far removed from Mack’s vision of Jesus that He is scarcely recognizable. Jesus’ glorification is not present. Paul and John’s experiences left them blind or almost dead. Mack’s Jesus is a ‘hey what’s up man, how ya doin, lets go walk on some water for fun, happy-go-lucky-drug-free-hippy kind-of-guy.’ The only thing about this Jesus that corresponds to the Jesus of the NT is that he’s Jewish! I can’t imagine that this Jesus would have ever called the Pharisees vipers or cleansed the temple with a whip. We shouldn’t be out of balance by thinking of Jesus as a harsh whip bearing man who insults everybody, but Young’s Jesus is grossly out of balance. I do not think that Young’s vision of Jesus has nearly as much correspondence to the Jesus presented in the New Testament as a picture of what Young thinks the ideal man would look like. The guy he comes up with is a very good man, but not Jesus.

The Holy Spirit


Young’s Holy Spirit is, put simply, weird. I’m not sure where most of this comes from. It is mostly neither good nor bad, affirmed or denied by Scripture. The Bible tells us very little about the Holy Spirit. But there is one very important aspect of the Holy Spirit that he misses. Sarayu (his name for the Holy Spirit in the book) does not draw attention and focus to Jesus at all, which is, methinks, the Holy Spirit’s primary role in the NT. I never saw this in The Shack and I was looking. Maybe I missed it?

Freewill

Young is obviously more Arminian (in the popular sense of the word) in his theology than I am. That’s okay; I can deal with that. I do not believe or act as if I am the sole judge of truth. I may be wrong, he may be wrong, we both may be wrong. I won’t attack these kinds of theological differences. All wrong theology has problems and will result in an improper view of God and improper praxis, so it is important, but I'm not going to get on a Calvinistic soap box and go after his 'Arminianism'. But I will take issue with some larger problems here. He uses freewill to solve all of the major problems in theodicy and it just doesn’t work. He ignores completely the problem of hell (he mentions hell but never explains or incorporates it). Ultimately God allows people to do sin even though it hurts them and God because he loves them and love does not force anyone to do anything. I’m sorry but this is very insufficient. I’m not saying that free will cannot help answer some of these questions but its much more complicated than that, whatever your theology. My parents made me go to school, did not allow me to eat small plastic objects, made me eat my vegetables, did not allow me to stay up all night, made me go to bed, and refused to allow me to do certain harmful activities because they loved me. Answer me this question, does God send people to hell forever because he loves them or are there other motivating factors? I want to make it clear that I am not questioning his theology, I'll do that elsewhere, just pointing out the deficiency of his answers. God’s love cannot be used to explain every action and aspect of God. God does get angry. God is just. God hates sin. I have found people, and I can be this way at times, who focus too much on God’s justice, hatred of sin, anger, and jealousy without a proper understanding of his grace, mercy, patience, and love. These are not to be understood as being in contradiction, or even in tension, but they must all be understood and realized. I don’t think Young does as good a job with theodicy as his fans think he does. Ultimately he falls far short, just like the rest of us do. That’s okay, but the book doesn’t leave us with the impression that this question hasn’t been answered. It acts like it has answered this question perfectly and completely. Maybe I’m inferring something here, but either way, he doesn’t even nick the surface of theodicy. His answers are insufficient. I can't imagine a godhating atheist being convinced by them.

Universalism/Salvation


There have been some people who have accused Young of universalism. This is unfair. He does not affirm universalism or the idea that all ways lead to God. Quite the opposite is, in fact, true. God calls people out of all religion, including Christianity (more on that later) into relationship with him. To paraphrase Young’s Jesus: ‘Not all roads lead to me but I will go on all roads to find you.” Young is not a universalist (as far as I can tell) he just doesn’t deal with the issue of unsaved people. That’s okay, he can’t deal with everything, but he can’t pretend that he has solved the theodicy problem without dealing with it. As for what he would say about unsaved people, I would guess that he would very much like what C. S. Lewis wrote: “the gates of hell are locked from the inside.” I think I agree with that. Are they locked from the outside too? Hmmmm….

Religion/Relationship


Well Surls, if you are reading this, here we go again. Back to the ‘Christianity is not a religion it’s a relationship cliché’! Young takes this statement and runs with it. Good grief! This is where I think he has his primary problem and why he is out of balance on so many other areas. This is also where he is most valuable and helpful in so many ways.

It is helpful because he does such an incredible and awesome job of showing what this means and what it looks (or maybe will/should look) like. Most of us would agree in theory that God has a sense of humor but never think of Him laughing with us. Most of us would agree that God knows and cares about us intimately but don’t imagine that He would take interest in our music, writing, or even personality. WOW! Young does such a good job with that! It was so good and helpful and corrective to think of God that way. But I think I can peg his main problem from which all of his other problems rise. The idea of God wanting a relationship and not religion is the very center of his theology. Almost everything in the book is based on that statement. There is suffering in the world because God wants a relationship. The corrective to every wrong view of God is to understand that God wants a relationship not religion. But he misses some very important aspects of Christianity because of his unbalanced focus and, perhaps, wrong definition of what a relationship is. Young’s God wants relationship and a relationship does not have any obligations or agendas. But God does have an agenda: He is in the process of conforming us into the image of His son, is He not? And God does have obligations: reject the world and its system, turn from your sin and all your other hopes for salvation and embrace Jesus as your hope of salvation. God and Jesus also give commands in the Bible, NT included. God does love people and want a relationship with them, no problems there, but seeing Christianity as merely a relationship will create more problems than it fixes. I’m not saying that it is wrong to use this phrase but care should be taken when we use it. We have to be sure we know that people know what we mean when we say it. If it communicates: “God is not looking for people to follow a set of rules and legalisms but for people to follow Jesus and turn from their sin,” then its good, If, however, it communicates: “God is not looking for people to follow a list of rules, to live a certain way, to believe anything in particular, or to give up anything, just people who are good people who love whatever their idea of God is,” then it is indeed a very very scary and dangerous statement. Unfortunately, I think most people hear the latter concept, not the former. People who have grown up in legalistic churches and backgrounds, or have just grown up in orthodox Christianity will understand it the first way, but the less educated and those growing up in a postchristian culture will not. Unfortunately, whether he intends it or not (and I would guess he doesn’t), I think Young will be read by many as advocating the latter option.

Man Before God


I was originally intending that this would be a long section but I’m getting tired so it’ll be short. Young presents a confrontation between God and man and it seems more than relevant to compare this confrontation with other God-human confrontations found in the Bible and compare them. At first glance, they seem nothing alike. We read about Paul’s confrontation with Jesus on the road to Damascus, John’s vision of Christ in Revelation, Isaiah’s vision of God and His throne, Moses’ dealings with God on Sinai and in the Wilderness, and Ezekiel’s vision of the throne, and there seems very very little to find that corresponds. But the most relevant comparison would not be any of these but God’s meeting with Job. Both are presented with horrific tragedy, both feel that God is unfair, and both meet God face to face. I’ll just make two points of comparison here and then move on to the conclusion.
The more obvious point is the way God is presented and the response this produces in Job. God is awesome, awful, and fearful and Job shuts up. When Job sees God face to face he is not able to voice his complaints. He has nothing to say but ‘I repent’ and ‘I’m putting my hand over my mouth’. God asks Job ‘who are you puny man’, he doesn’t plant a garden with him or cook him dinner. In this there is a very great and important difference. When man is confronted with the Almighty God he shuts up. Mack didn’t.

The less obvious point is where Young is good. In neither Job nor The Shack does God really explain Himself. In The Shack, Mack learns a lot about God but does not learn why Missy had to die. Mack’s answer is not found in God explaining Himself but itn seeing and knowing God. This is exactly the answer that Job receives. God does not explain Himself in Job. Throughout the whole book Job asks myriads of questions. How many does God answer? None. Not a single cotton picking one. God does not need nor is He obligated to answer man’s questions. But God did answer Job in Himself. When Job saw God he saw something of who he was before God and could do or say nothing. He affirms that he spoke without knowledge, things that he didn’t understand. That, ultimately is what Mack’s answer is: ‘These are things you can’t understand, instead of being angry, know me better and trust me.’

Towards Something of a Conclusion


Well this is really long and it’s really late (or early, depending upon your perspective) so this needs to be wrapped up. I am very glad to have read The Shack. It helped me think more deeply about what it means that God loves me and wants to be in relationship with me. It helped give me a better idea of what God is (perhaps) like in relationship with Himself. Most importantly it made me think about God and yearn to know Him better. For that I am grateful and appreciative.

I am also grateful for an enjoyable read. If more books in the Christian Fiction genre were this thought provoking and well written I would, perhaps, hang out there more often. Let’s hope this starts a trend of more theologically aware and mentally stimulating writing in a mostly barren desert of shallow theology and literary swill.

But I cannot recommend this book to everyone. I wish I could. I can and will recommend it to some people who are educated and/or discerning enough to be able to glean value without swallowing the whole thing, but I couldn’t stand up in the pulpit and tell people to read it.

Some people will be irked at me for this review. They’ll tell me that I have to remember the genre, it’s fictional, it’s an allegory. You can’t read it like a theological treatise. True. But I can’t help but ask what effect this will have on people’s view of God. Will it help them better understand their trials and sufferings? Will it help them better understand God? Will it help them better understand who He is, what He’s like and what He demands (and that is the right word, demands)? Overall I think for the average pew-sitter it will move them further away from understanding the God of the Bible. This is unfortunate because there are some very good things in this book that could really help people think about God in ways that they haven’t before but should. It could really help people understand what it means that God loves them and wants a relationship with them. It might even be able to help them understand things like the Trinity better. But at what cost? For the mature and stable Christian, this is a good read if read wisely. For the pastor or theologian it is, perhaps, an essential read given the popularity and influence this book will likely command. But there are far too many people out there who do not seem to be able to think critically when it comes to their faith and spirituality. These people are not only the people who are most likely to be harmed by reading it, but probably the most likely to like it. The people who are able to derive the most benefit from it, more academic-unemotional-serious-logical types will probably not like it or read it, and they probably should. But if you want to find something suitable for everyone to read, give them Job. It does a better job (hehehe). You may, somewhat fairly, object that it is harder for most people to follow. Write a good paraphrase then! Do a Bible Study, write a book, preach a sermon… I don’t know, do something! You figure it out.

I would very much like to hear your feedback on the Shack and my review. Let’s dialogue. I would really like to hear Nate and Austin’s opinion, especially in light of Austin’s previous blog about the term ‘religion’. This book does, regardless of whatever else it does, make you think and makes for great theological dialogue.

8 comments:

Bren said...

wow. this was a novel! did you read jim robinson's review of this book? he had a favorable review as well, though not quite nearly as detailed or thorough. your review is very intriguing and makes me want to read the book even more to see what the fuss is all about. i would be interested in re-reading this after reading the book to see if i agree with your take on it. thanks for taking the time to post this.

DustyDisciple said...

Hey Matt,

I'm Tyson Surls, Austin's brother. I just started the book about three days ago and I finished it today. I, for one, loved the book. I wouldn't declare it is a source of truth, but I would say it is a very thought-provoking way to look at some of the tough questions brought to Christians and theologians, both from within the faith and without. I must admit, I skimmed parts of your review as I am a bit tired now. I will come back and read it in full at some point. I also will be following Austin's blogs about it and I want to read the book again in about a month when I start forgetting things again.

All in all, thanks for the review. I'll be back with a more useful comment later.

Sabrina said...

thanks for that awesome review, matt! i must say, i either came across many people who loved the book and embraced it whole-heartedly, or few that absolutely hated the book. because i only read reviews that either tore it apart theologically or listened to many people rave about the book for hours, i decided to leave it alone (because i don't usually read ccf)...but your thorough review has piqued my curiosity.

Lisa said...

Matt, Thanks for posting your review of the Shack. Having not read the book myself, I am not in a position to give interactive feedback of your review; yet I thought its format addressed well the issues various audiances do or should consider as they approach a book like this. Furthermore, your review makes me want to read the book, so that I can enter the conversaion interactively. Thanks!
I have a couple friends who having read the book don't really understand what all the hype is about (I'm not sure if this reflects a positive or negative respond to the book). A review like yours would help them understand the various issues involved in responding to a book like this from a theologian perspective. Would it be possible for me to recommend they read your review? Thanks again for taking the time to put your thoughts in writing.

faithbornfromdoubt said...

Thanks for your responses.

Hey Brenda,
I did read Jim's review. I'm not sure I intended to give a positive review. I think it's worth reading for the theologically aware and discerning but I would not recommend it to most people. I would be very interested in hearing what you say if/when you read it.

Hey Tyson,
Thanks for the comment. I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts when you get the chance.

Hey Sabrina,
Thanks also for the comments. I would also like to hear your thoughts again if you read the book.

Hey Lisa,
Feel completely free to refer people to my review. That's no problem at all. If you read the book let me know what you think of it.

Matt

Bren said...

sorry, let me clarify. compared to the reviews i was reading before yours and jim's, this is more favorable than not. don't worry...you did what you set out to do. namely, give the book the more balanced review you hoped to. your 'negative' comments actually are what make me want to read it myself to see if i come to the same conclusions.

VentiAmericano said...

Matt,
Sorry for the delay, I finished the book last night.
Good review, and I will say more on my blog itself.
So don't take my lack of words as a lack of enthusiasm on the subject- I will mention your blog on my blog.
Blogs galore!

Surls

Crista said...

Hey Matt! Great review. I sympathize with your frustration over the "swill" of contemporary Christian fiction and music. It's hard to find good fiction by contemporary Christian authors.

You mentioned a lot of good stuff about the Shack that I left out of my review (not intentionally!). For example The Shack does shatter the false idea of God showing mankind a "cold" love. It is amazing to think that God enjoys us as individuals, but then we were created for His sake...

Anyway, good review. Gave me lots to think about. :)

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Tacoma, Washington, United States
"It is not as a child that I believe and confess Jesus Christ. My hosanna is born of a furnace of doubt." Fyodor Dostoevsky. I'm a Northwest Baptist Seminary graduate (MDiv) and current student (ThM). I plan on someday going to Africa and teach Bible and Theology at a Bible College or Seminary level. I hope to continue my studies and earn a PhD, either after I go to overseas for a few years or before. I'm a theological conservative, but I like to think outside of the box and challenge conventional thinking and consider myself a free thinker. I am currently serving in my fourth year as a Youth Pastor at Prairie Baptist Fellowship in Yelm Washington. My blogs will reflect my thoughts on both seminary and ministry life, though not (of course) exclusively. I enjoy literature and occasionally try my hand at writing stories and poems. "For I am not ashamed of the gospel for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes..." Paul

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