Book Review: “Once Upon a Tree” (Jun-Jul 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

by Anne-Geri’ Fann
June – July, 2004

Once upon a Tree: Answering the Ten Crucial Questions of Life
Calvin Miller

(Howard, 2002). | Hardback ISBN: 1582292574

In the world where many questions still pound the brain: What is truth? Why am I alive? Can I be religious and still do what I want? Consider this: Perhaps God is actually less concerned with celebrating Good Friday than he is about how we responded to last week’s Bad Tuesday.

Once upon a Tree stakes out a vast philosophical and theological territory in the warm, informal rhetoric, well-known of Calvin Miller readers and students. He tackles the concept of forgiveness, grace, death, life, depression, confusion, and doubt all by pointing us back to the moment that changed it all – Calvary.

But the prolific author sounds at first as if he is pulling the alarm without fully knowing how to put out the fire; indeed, without seeing much more than smoke. In lesser hands, that would be a problem. In Miller’s, it is not. He takes us right back to the cross every time.

I am discouraged to say, however, that Miller’s pen did not grab me as it once did, and I found myself wading through several over-the-top analogies in order to get to valid points. Though individual paragraphs are often dazzling little gems in their own right, the way they are worked together into a larger mosaic is not as impressive. There are sections of quite fast-moving narrative that are slowed down by random literary or historical mentions that are never explained or their place in the explication made clear. This may be frustrating for someone who has never read Hemingway and definitely for those who are waiting to see how Adolf Eichmann relates to Jesus, except that they were both tried in Jerusalem. It was also difficult to weave passed some “unexpected insights” (Madeleine L’Engle) that weren’t necessarily biblical:

  • “…Why was the temple veil shredded? There are probably two reasons. First of all, God was crying. This is how God cries when his Son dies unloved and alone.”

Of course, God was experiencing the universe’s most painful moment, but why use the temple veil as an example? Most of us been taught that there is no longer a priest(man) interceder that goes into the holiest of holies to ask God for repentance of the children of God’s sins, another major point in Once upon a Tree.

  • “It has been said that when the cross was jolted in its socket, ten thousand angels drew swords against an unfeeling plant. God spared his precious world their wrath.”

Okay, who said that again? It’s beautiful and breath-taking, granted, but something more likely to be said from the pulpit with a disclaimer attached. I have gotten annoyed at my friend, Donna, a wise elder’s wife, who comes back from any theological discussion with, “Are you making that up? If it doesn’t say that somewhere, then be quiet.” Well, Donna, I hate to say that you’ve been right about that, and if that is your pet peeve, you might not want to pick up this book.

It pains me to have to be sounding somewhat ungrateful when I say that I didn’t find the style of this book to impress me, especially because I will probably still pick up any book that says “Calvin Miller” on it. So on a more positive note, if a careful reader can get past the author’s prolonged prose, allegiance to alliteration (yes, I did that on purpose), and at times insignificant analogies, it does have very significant value.

Miller tackles the main questions everyone asks, answers them well and has a few excellent citations. He discuses death after a clearly difficult time in his own health, but calls it a “temporary inconvenience.” He leaves himself vulnerable by posing complicated issues that he himself has asked: What is truth? Why am I alive? These are crucial, everyman questions. And his answers come in a world where many would prefer simply to leave The Cross, but he points out that the greatest danger comes not from those who march purposefully into hell, but for those who simply fall asleep on the slopes and slide in.

In other words, we ask the questions, but don’t necessarily want the answer, because most of us already know what it is, and we’d rather ignore it. Miller reminded me to believe in the answer, the Jesus of The Cross, as those who sat at the foot of our dying Saviour, instead of absentmindedly watch, like those who were only there for the Passover.

If you are a fan of Calvin Miller, you may like this book, as did his many friends who wrote quotes for him. If you are new to Calvin Miller, read The Singer Trilogy first, and the rest of his writing will make a lot more sense.New Wineskins

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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