Review of “God is not Nice”

Ulrich Lehner. God is Not Nice: Rejecting Pop Culture Theology and Discovering the God Worth Living For. Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2017 (ISBN 978-1594717482) xii + 147 pp., Pb. $16.95. Available on Amazon HERE.

“This is a God who invites you on a great adventure that will change your life and who dares you to attempt great things. In the words of Mr. Beaver from The Chronicles of Narnia about Aslan, ‘He’s not safe, but good.'”

Ulrich Lehner’s book, God is not Nice, is a must read for everyone today interested in how we have exchanged the God of the Bible for a counterfeit.[^1] Lehner acutely points out that we have God has been made into a sweet sentimental grandpa figure who pats us on the head to assure us we are still good when we do something wrong but without demanding any change in our lives. This god is predictable, unchallenging, pleasant, and confortable; in a nutshell, this is a nice god. Lehner dispels the myth of the nice god by tracing these philosophical and theological influences on our conception of God, particularly those originating from the period of the Enlightenment. To say God is not nice does not mean God is not interested in our well being. In fact, the opposite is true. Nice people are pleasant to be around but they do not transform our lives. Lehner demonstrates that God loves us too much to be nice. God wants to transform our lives out of the sinful and suffering condition into which we are born to be in a loving and adventurous relationship with Him for all eternity.

Out of eleven chapters in the book, two of them are presented here as indicative of Lehner’s main point that a nice god is a modernistic invention. In chapter 4, “The God of Thunder,” Lehner says the way previous generations understood God has been lost and we now believe in a god who forgives everyone because He is loving and does not let anyone go to hell. Those who believe people can go to hell and that there are moral norms that must be followed are often labeled as unforgiving and unloving. Lehner says this emotivism, where one’s feelings determine what is right or wrong, originates from atheistic Enlightenment thinkers who made god into a societal function to make sure everyone gets along, a nice god. This viewpoint has distorted Jesus into a moral teacher, biblical moral norms into guidelines, and god as a nice friend. This new god is not the God of Jesus Christ because it ultimately strips God’s personhood away from Him and makes us incapable of meeting Him in love.

If God is conceived as someone who just wants people to do their best to get along without any substantial change in their lives, it diminishes the reality of sin and its destructive nature. In chapter 6, “The God of Surrendur,” Lehner shows how the modern distorted views of love and sin affect our conception of God. Love of an ideal or a concept like “humanity” is not the love Jesus called His disciples to practice. Instead, Christ calls His followers to love a concrete person, their neighbor, who they encounter in their lives. It is much more challenging to love the co-worker one finds annoying than loving “humanity” or the earth in general. Lehner draws from philosophers such as Marcel and Pieper to state love as the affirmation of the existence of another person and this love is not blind to the defects of shortcomings of other people. A love that is blind to a person’s wrongdoings or sins is a counterfeit love from a nice god who says no one is guilty or bad enough to need to change their whole life. True love, on the other hand, is a love that acknowledges sin and enables people to forgive each other. Without love and a proper knowledge of sin, no one can receive forgiveness from God or give it to another person.

There are two related aspects of “God is Not Nice” that are a little confusing. The first is the chapter titles and the sub-headings within the chapter which do not always reflect the majority of the content within them. For example, the chapter entitled “The God of Surrender” discusses how surrender is an act of love in the first two pages of the chapter but the rest of the chapter examines love and the reality of sin without returning to the theme of surrender. Also, the chapter entitled “The God of the Incarnation” devotes considerable attention to health fanaticism and not praying for superficial things to the point that some of Lehner’s insightful remarks about the incarnation become subsumed under what appears to be tangential but important cultural observations. A second difficulty throughout the book is that most of the chapters concentrate on what God is not, namely that He is not a nice genteel person, and less on who God is. Lehner focuses more on who God is at the end of the book but the fact that more pages are spent discussing who God is not also provides an opportunity for a professor or catechist to use to launch into who God is from salvation history.

In conclusion, Lehner’s book is a wakeup call from the dogmatic slumber of conceiving god as a nice grandpa who would never make us uncomfortable. God is much more challenging and adventurous than some nice god and Lehner has demonstrated the origins of the nice god which has invaded several minds today. By deconstructing the nice god myth, Lehner makes possible the opportunity to meet God anew today in the modern world. This book is definitely a conversation starter and accessible to everyone such as high schoolers, college students, seminarians, parishes, and everyone else who wants to truly know and grow in relationship with the God of Jesus Christ.

 [^1]: I would like to thank Ave Maria Press for the complimentary copy I received to review this book for course adoption.

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