Not the Way It's Supposed to Be, by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. (Eerdmans, 202 pp.; $19.99, hardcover). Reviewed by Wayne Brouwer, senior pastor at Harderwyk Christian Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.

Item: A pastor at a neighboring church has a call to a new ministry. I hope he goes. I don't know him personally, but I do know that he is very effective. Just maybe, if he leaves, some of the people who are raving about his gifts and flocking to his congregation will take a look in my direction!

Item: A few weeks back I made a purchase for our church. Certainly it was for the benefit of one of the programs we are running right now. But elements of the purchase were really only for my own use. Can I get away with routing the whole payment through the congregation's budgeted line items, and thus save my own professional-development allowance for other things?

Item: I meet weekly with a men's Bible study/fellowship group. They ask me how I'm doing. Regularly I tell them I'm so busy, too busy. One friend asks me if I'm spending enough time with my family. There is a humble pride that wells up inside when I assure them of my godly intent to be a good husband and father, while in the same breath acknowledging that my faithfulness to Mistress Church kept me busy seven days last week.

Remembering these things brings a little embarrassment, and I'm glad about that. At least there is still some screeching in the ears of my soul when the "vandalism of shalom" (Plantinga's term) works its dissonant stealth.

But what bothers me, in these reflections, is the ease with which I envy, the passion with which I lie, the fortitude with which I sacrifice my family on the altar of self. And I'm a "good" person-at least in the eyes of society. So I read Not the Way It's Supposed to Be, turning every familiar corner with consternated recognition.

"I can see clearly now"

Plantinga's book is marvelous, on a number of different levels. For one thing, it is clear, logical, and to the point. A "breviary of sin" he calls it: a brief introduction, listing, defining; an orderly arranging of information about the topic. There are few questions about sin that linger without some address in these pages. The enigma of sin itself remains, of course, and Plantinga never tries to explain that inexplicability. But his purpose for the book is precise ("to present the nature and dynamics of sin"), as is his method:

I shall define sin, describe how sin corrupts what is good and how such corruption spreads, discuss the parasitic quality of sin and the ironies and pretenses generated by this quality, compare sin with folly and addiction, and conclude by describing a couple of the classic "postures" or movements of sin (attack and flight).

A second delight is the clear imagery Plantinga paints. We grapple to philosophize or theologize doctrines about sin, but Plantinga lifts our eyes from the page to the screen. Can you remember the scene in the movie Grand Canyon, where the stranded motorist is terrorized by young toughs, and the tow-truck driver negotiates an uneasy peace when he says, "This ain't the way it's supposed to be"? Can you picture the spread of contaminating pollution? Can you visualize the blood-red belly of a parasitic worm? Can you dance in the streets with revelers cloaked behind masks of deceit? Plantinga ushers us into the world of Proverbs 1-9, where sin gains wily personhood and corruption masquerades as our next-door neighbor. Even the patterns of sinful behavior are postured: first, evil hammers at us in unrelenting attack; then, if our resistance seems ready to hold the castle doors in place, stealthy vapors of hell spirit us away in flight from the soul's true home and the mind's proper lodgings.

Trained vision

Third, this is a book about sin in which sin is never the main character. Plantinga begins his travels in creation's innocence, and, after wandering for a while in the murky underworlds, leads us round eventually to re-creation's shalom. Throughout the journey, it is the light from above that guides and not the trembling darkness below.

Fourth, this is a book in which the author seriously attempts to live the message. I've plagiarized a multitude of times in my preaching and writing, each occasion resolving to carry better the Truth along conduits of truth. I'm attempting something Plantinga seems to have achieved to a remarkable degree. Along with the usual sourcing footnotes, he supplies a plethora of acknowledgments to colleagues and acquaintances who have generated a thought or urged a contour of investigation. It is not a necessary literary feature, perhaps, in our usual publishing pursuits, but one that, in this case, ties the message to its medium.

I happen to think that Plantinga's preface overestimates real awareness of sin in previous generations and, by the same token, underestimates a corresponding awareness in our own society. But every generation needs to be reminded of the reality of sin. Plantinga says he wrote this book for nontheologians. Even non-Christians who are troubled by undefined evil would read his words with profit, he suggests. And it's true. If you have a conscience, get this book. And if you don't . . .


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