All Religion Isn’t Bad, but There Is Such a Thing as Bad Religion (Review)

You don’t often hear people called heretics anymore. In 1905, the British journalist G. K. Chesterton wrote a book called Heretics, in which he critiqued the teachings of several of his contemporaries, including H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw. Even then, though, writing a book calling out heresies was kind of cheeky. In the age of the modern nation-state, when dissenters from orthodoxy no longer get punished (and by the way, I think that’s a good thing), it hardly seems worth one’s while to call someone out as a heretic.

Nevertheless, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat does just that in his book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (2012). Douthat himself is a Catholic who has sympathies with conservative Protestantism. In this book,  he takes as a starting point that the famous secularization thesis popular in the nineteenth and early twentieth  century is wrong; societies do not inevitably become less religious as they become more modern. Rather, Douthat writes that “every human culture is religious—defined by what its inhabitants believe about some ultimate reality, and what they think that reality demands of them” (3). All societies have some beliefs about what the world is like and what people ought to do. Whether that belief involves the supernatural or not, or has weekly services or not, it functions as a religion.

If religion is inescapable because beliefs about ultimate reality are inescapable, then religion itself is not the problem and trying to get rid of all religion is not the solution. If you try your best to get rid of some forms of religion, other forms will pop up in their place. On the other hand, if you’re a religious person, then secularization is not the main problem. “The secular mistake has been to assume that every theology tends inevitably toward the same follies and fanaticisms, and to imagine that a truly postreligious culture is even possible, let alone desirable. The religious mistake has been to fret over the threat posed by explicitly anti-Christian forces, while ignoring or minimizing the influence that the apostles of pseudo-Christianity exercise over the American soul” (4).

The problem, according to Douthat, is bad religion: “America’s problem isn’t too much religion, or too little of it. It’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place” (4).

The book comes in two parts. In the first, “Christianity in Crisis,” Douthat traces the devolution of Christianity over the course of the latter half of the twentieth century. While heresies have always been present, he argues, what makes our current climate different is the weakness of the orthodox Christian response to them.

He begins the second, “The Age of Heresy,” by pointing out heresy’s inclination toward resolving ambiguity. Whereas Christian orthodoxy has always embraced paradox and sought to hold seemingly contradictory things in tension (Is Jesus God or human? Yes.), heresies have always sought a ruthless narrowing (Does Jesus seem in some ways unlike the God of the Old Testament? Get rid of the Old Testament). “The goal of the great heresies … has often been to extract from the tensions of the gospel narratives a more consistent, streamlined, and noncontradictory Jesus” (153). This, Douthat argues, has led to the “lost gospel” trend in scholarship about Christian origins. In it, scholars like to present a one-dimensional vision of Jesus—as only human, or as only a wise teacher, or as only a Gnostic sage. Usually, these one-dimensional portraits of Jesus look an awful lot like the scholar (or popularizer, in the case of the novelist Dan Brown) who is arguing that this is what Jesus was really like. Upon closer examination, these claims about the early history of Christianity prove to be inconclusive or outright false, but their popularity tells a lot about what many Americans want to believe.

The next three chapters Douthat spends looking at other heresies that have emerged from the tendency to make Jesus in our own image and to forcibly resolve paradoxes that have existed in Christianity from the beginning: the prosperity gospel of preachers like Joel Osteen, the therapeutic “god within” theology of Oprah, Deepak Chopra, and others, and God-and-country-but-mostly-country Christian nationalism.

He then closes the book with a vision of what a renewed Christianity might look like. First, it will be political without being partisan, avoiding the temptation to fit Christianity into the mold of ideologies on the right or the left but at the same time not becoming quietist or indifferent. Second, it will be ecumenical but also confessional, reaching out to like-minded others without watering down one’s own theological commitments. To do this we need strong institutions. Christians who are part of churches with clearly defined theological commitments will be less susceptible to watering down their faith by uniting it with (for example) a political platform. Third, it will be moralistic but also holistic—not downplaying the ethical demands of Christianity while at the same time not becoming unduly focused on hot-button moral issues (sexual immorality) to the neglect of other, just as important, moral issues (gluttony, greed, pride). Fourth, it will be oriented toward sanctity and beauty. It will cultivate both saints and artists. Here he quotes Joseph Ratzinger shortly before he became Pope Benedict XVI: “The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb” (291).

This is a great book, and I recommend it to any Christian believer who wonders how we got to a place where so many Americans want to believe that there were suppressed gospels, that God wants to make them wealthy, that the only God that matters is inside each of us, or that God may be subservient to a political ideology, whether on the right or the left. I found the first part of the book to be a tough slog, focused as it was on recounting a history that I was mostly familiar with. And while I was not sure about parts of Douthat’s interpretation of that history, I agree with his central insights—that secularism is more of a bogeyman than a real threat to Christianity, that heresy tends to resolve the paradoxes of orthodoxy in a self-serving way, and that heresy is rampant today in part because of the weakness of orthodox Christianity’s response.

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Faithful No Matter the Cost: A Review

I have never gone to L’Abri, the Christian community and study center that Francis Schaeffer founded in Switzerland, but I was greatly influenced by it growing up. My mom had been there in the ’70s when she was sorting through what she believed, and in our house there were several of Schaeffer’s books. I went to a L’Abri conference in Greensboro, NC with her in the late ’90s, and listened to the lecture tapes I got there for several years afterward.

Os Guinness is an English social critic who was a leader at L’Abri in the late ’60s. He has gone on to do a variety of things since then, but his connection with L’Abri is what originally turned me on to his books. I think the first one I read was The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (1998), which came out while I was in college and helped me sort through what I was thinking about career and vocation. In the last several years he has written a book every year: A Free People’s Suicide (2012, and my current favorite of his), The Global Public Square (2013), Renaissance (2014), Fool’s Talk (2015), and this year Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization.

9780830844654This latest book is a call to Christians in the West to be the “impossible people” of the title. The term “impossible man” was used to describe the medieval reformer Peter Damian, who attacked evil within the church. While some in his time criticized him for being purely negative, his great passion was for faithfulness to the gospel. He was later recognized for this positive passion and was canonized. Guinness calls Christians to have this same passion for faithfulness: “Living before the absolute presence of God, we are called to be faithful, and therefore unmanipulable, unbribable, undeterrable and unclubbable. We serve an impossible God, and we are to be God’s impossible people. Let us then determine and resolve to be so faithful in all the challenges and ordeals the onrushing future brings that it may be said of us that we in our turn have served God’s purpose in our generation. So help us God” (223).

Those who have read Guinness’s earlier book Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times may wonder how this book relates to that one, since the subject matter appears similar. Guinness makes this comparison:

Impossible People is a companion to my earlier book Renaissance, which came first for a reason. In that book I explored the reasons for our response of assured faith in the gospel—which must be forever unshakeable—and it concluded with hope. I deliberately reversed the normal order of “challenge and response” and put the response before the challenge. Such is the character and record of the gospel of Jesus that we may trust it absolutely however dark the times and however bleak the challenge. Doom, gloom, alarmism and fear are never the way for the people of God. We are to have “no fear.”  Impossible People addresses the challenges we face and subjective side that is our response to these challenges—the gospel carries its own inherent transforming power, but we need to trust it, obey it and live it—against all the odds and at any cost. (33)

Guinness spends the bulk of the book, six chapters, enumerating various challenges Christians face in the West: secularism, modernity, spiritual warfare, social constructionism, atheism, and generationalism. Then he spends a final chapter setting forth some tools Christians should use to discern and engage the times they live in.

Guinness is a skillful writer, and I enjoy everything he writes. This book was no exception, yet I am also ambivalent about it. I agree with him about many of the challenges he sees facing the church in the West, but I think splitting the “challenge and response” into two books has caused him to focus unduly on one side in this book. There seemed to me to be not enough space spent on the proper response Christians ought to have to these various challenges. The book felt incomplete in that regard. Also, since each of the challenges he enumerates is complex and could warrant a separate book on its own, I thought some of his critiques were too broad-brushed and lacked the power to resonate with anyone but those who were already convinced.

So if you want to read Guinness’s thoughtful take on the current cultural climate, I would recommend reading Renaissance first (read my review of that book here). Then, if you’d like more detail, read Impossible People.

Note: Thanks to the publisher, InterVarsity Press, for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Trying to Get By in Shanghai: A Review

Rob Schmitz is the China correspondent for NPR’s Marketplaceand he lives on a street in Shanghai whose name translates into English as “Street of Eternal Happiness.” In 2012–2013 he reported a series of short stories on the people he met along the street, which lies in the former French Concession. Later, he reworked and expanded that material into a book: Street of Eternal HappinessThe stories Schmitz tells come together to give us a picture of what it’s like for people of various ages and backgrounds to navigate the political, cultural, and financial realities of modern-day China.

9780553418088The book comes in 15 chapters, with 2–3 each dedicated to telling the stories of various people along the street. There is CK, the young entrepreneur who sells accordions and is struggling to get a sandwich shop off the ground. There are the residents of Maggie Lane, the area behind Schmitz’s apartment building, who don’t want their homes to be demolished and the area redeveloped, but are continually harassed by unscrupulous developers. There is Zhao, who left her husband, came to Shanghai, and was eventually able to open a flower shop, but is now trying to pass on her will to succeed to her two sons. There is the family of Wang Ming, a businessman who used to live along the street. He might have become rich if he lived today, but in the ’50s he was condemned as a capitalist and sentenced to hard labor while his wife was left to raise their seven children. And my favorite are Auntie Fu and Uncle Feng, the bickering couple who are kept on the brink of financial ruin by Auntie’s attraction to get-rich-quick schemes.

These cameos show us as well as any book on history or economics what it is like to live in China today: to experience a growing economy that grants increasing opportunity, but also has corruption and injustice. To live with a government that sometimes seems to be granting more freedom, but also sometimes seems to be out of step with the realities of the everyday life of the country’s people. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interesting in learning about what it is like to live in modern-day China. The stories make it a fascinating read even for those, like me, who are relatively unfamiliar with Chinese culture and history.

Note: Thanks to the publisher for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

A Christian Missionary to Christians: A Review

The nineteenth-century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was a Christian, but subsequent Christian readers have expressed divergent opinions about him. Francis Schaeffer, for example, associated Kierkegaard with the so-called “leap of faith” and condemned him for encouraging irrationality. Dave Breese, in Seven Men Who Rule the World from the Grave, expresses a similar view. On the other hand, Kierkegaard is viewed more positively by thinkers like C. Stephen Evans and Merold Westphal, and exerted an influence on such later Christian theologians as Karl Barth.

And if you decide to wade through opinions from secondary sources and judge for yourself (as it were) whether Kierkegaard is worth reading, where do you start? Many of his 9780830840977works, such as the famous Fear and Trembling and Either/Or, are written under assumed names, and it isn’t always clear to what extent what he says in those works is what he really thinks.
Thankfully, Mark Tietjen has written Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians, an accessible introduction to Kierkegaard that summarizes some of his thought and points out some of the ways in which he is still relevant to our own time. But how can you be a Christian missionary to Christians? Tietjen explains:

One of Kierkegaard’s stated aims is to reintroduce Christianity into Christendom. In a sense Kierkegaard is a Christian missionary to Christians. This odd predicament necessitated, he believed, an indirect approach. If someone already believes he or she is a Christian, then the direct charge “you ought to become a Christian” will make little sense and likely offend or alienate one’s audience. So Kierkegaard decides he will take an indirect approach and provisionally grant his contemporaries their Christianity, and he will write some books from a non-Christian point of view with the hopes of generating introspection among the “Christians” of his day (42).

In other words, Kierkegaard was troubled by the fact that so many people in nineteenth-century Denmark, called themselves “Christians” because they mentally assented to a list of doctrines when they really were not Christians at all. His response was to make Christianity more difficult, and also to point out how the ways these alleged Christians were living actually diverged from real Christianity. In his book, Tietjen points out how Kierkegaard went about this with regard to the subjects of Jesus Christ, the human self, Christian witness, and the life of human love. Along the way, he sets the record straight with regard to the criticisms of Schaeffer, Breese, and others. Kierkegaard was not endorsing irrationality when it came to faith or saying that truth was unattainable. Rather, he saw that what was missing from the Christianity of his time was inwardness—the personal, whole life commitment to follow Jesus. According to Tietjen, “Despite this emphasis on passion or inwardness or the subjective side of Christian faith, Kierkegaard does not denigrate or minimize Christian doctrines or what his pseudonym calls objective truth. In fact, Kierkegaard assumes Christian truth to be true. He simply takes seriously the biblical view that the faith that transforms a human life reaches beyond the mind to one’s heart, soul and strength—to one’s passions” (41).

This is a wonderful book for those who have had some sense that Kierkegaard still has something to say, but aren’t sure where to start in his writings. Especially in places where it is assumed that what makes you a Christian is that you were raised in church or even mentally subscribe to a list of doctrines, Kierkegaard continues to call out that Christianity is both harder and better than this. And his style of indirect communication gives us an example of how to approach those who think they know what Christianity is but don’t.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Also, here are a few resources for learning more about this book:

Christian Faith in the Future: A Review of Renaissance by Os Guinness

I have long enjoyed the writings of cultural critic Os Guinness. The first book I read of his, in college, was The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life (a good time to read such a book). Since then, I’ve read Time for Truth, The Gravedigger File, A Free People’s Suicide, and two books that he compiled as curriculum material for the Trinity ForumThe Great Experiment and Doing Well and Doing Good. I haven’t agreed with everything he’s written, but he is always a thought-provoking and talented writer.

His latest book is Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times. In it, he asks the question: “Can the Christian church in the advanced modern world be renewed and restored even now and be sufficiently changed to have a hope of again changing the world through the power of the gospel? Or is all such talk merely whistling in the dark—pointless, naive and irresponsible?” I really enjoy his writing style, so here is a brief rundown of the contents with a few quotes mixed in:

In chapter 1, he explores what he calls “Our Augustinian Moment.” He calls it an Augustinian moment because, like in the time of Augustine, he sees Western civilization beginning to crumble around us from the threats of Islamism, “illiberal liberalism,” and self-destructive Western ideas and lifestyles. Therefore, like Augustine, it is possible to see renewal. In fact, he writes that “in many ways St. Augustine throws more light on our age than Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and all our noisy new atheists combined.” However, Guinness emphasizes that the book is “not an argument for ‘Christian civilization,’ let alone Western civilization. My supreme concern is the first term rather than the second, and therefore the church rather than civilization.” Guinness is ultimately hopeful as he ends the chapter with the challenge before us: “It is, I believe, that we trust in God and his gospel and move out confidently into the world, living and working for a new Christian renaissance, and thus challenge the darkness with the hope of Christian faith, believing in an outcome that lies beyond the horizon of all we can see and accomplish today.”

In chapter 2, Guinness looks at the “Grand Global Tasks” before the church in the West: preparing the global south for the challenges of modernity, winning back the Western world, and contributing to the human future.

In chapter 3, “Unnecessary, Unlikely, Undeniable,” he explores more fully what the relationship between Christianity and culture really is, and argues that it is marked by the three characteristics of the chapter’s title. He writes, “Our aim should always be to advance the kingdom of God rather than create culture. But on the other hand, Christian faithfulness will always have cultural consequences, if only as a by-product of Christians following the call of Jesus and aiming for higher and other things.”

In chapter 4, he reveals “The Secret of Cultural Power.” The secret is that “when followers of Jesus live out the gospel in the world, as we are called to do, we become an incarnation of the truth of the gospel and an expression of the character and shape of its truth. It is this living-in-truth that proves culturally powerful.” Yet Guinness does not want to seem triumphalistic here; he emphasizes that Christianity always has a means of self-criticism, and that means is found in God’s revealed Word: “It is that supreme power and authority of the Word of God—powerful, objective and standing above the flux and flow of history and human culture—which is the true source of Christian self-criticism and the true hope of ongoing Christian renewal.”

In chapter 5, “The Dynamics of the Kingdom,” Guinness looks at various lessons we have learned from the world about the process of cultural change, and how those lessons interact with the way of God in the world. In the world, the ideas of leaders always outweigh the ideas of followers, ideas are always more powerful when they are exerted at the center of a society, and ideas spread best through networks. But in the kingdom of God, “God himself leads, and he leads his church and his people through his Spirit.” Also, the kingdom is characterized by “surprising reversals” of the way we think things will go: “We are … always ready for the surprising voice, the far-from-obvious leader, the last-person-you-would-ever-think would be the key player. And yes, we are always ready to recognize God’s nobodies and God’s fools. For these may be the truly anointed ones prepared to be seen and treated as nobodies and fools for Christ’s sake, whom God uses far more than we who are the obvious ones for God to use.” The third feature of the kingdom way is that “distinctive culture is more often a by-product than a goal.”

In chapter 6, the final chapter, Guinness argues that “Our Golden Age Is Ahead.” But while he is optimistic about the prospect of cultural renewal, he doesn’t ultimately put his hope there. He writes, “There is no one Christian culture and there is no perfect Christian culture, so there is no golden age behind us. Our golden age lies ahead—when, and only when, our Lord returns.” Until then, “our highest endeavors must always be regarded with realism and a wry humility.” Thus, the church goes forward best by going back first—but not to any imagined golden age: “We are talking about a return to God, not an era.” Paradoxically, by going back to God and moving in concert with his Spirit, “The Christian faith becomes the most progressive faith in history—though, and here is the crucial difference from modern progressivism, the Christian faith always has a standard by which to assess the purported progress.”

In his concluding postscript, Guinness asks whether it is “conceivable that God will revive the Western church a third time, after it has gone cold twice.” He also asks (and in particular it seems he is in dialogue with James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World) whether it is possible to change the world. He answers, “Yes, we can, because God can—and he has in the past, and he is doing so elsewhere in the world, and he is able to do so again even here in the advanced modern world, because God is God, and his is the last word in human affairs.” So our hope in a renaissance in the church, and by extension in the West, is dependent on whether God wants it to be so: “The time has come to trust God, move out, sharing and demonstrating the good news, following his call and living out our callings in every area of our lives, and then leave the outcome to him.”

At the end of the book is the full text of “An Evangelical Manifesto” (2008), which Guinness helped to draft. If you have read that manifesto and liked it or disliked it, that will likely be an indication of whether you will like or dislike this book.

As for myself, I found this to be a realistic yet ultimately hopeful book, and the hope is put in the right place. It is a helpful corrective to nostalgia for an imagined golden age on the one hand, and irrational optimism about the future prospects of Western civilization, on the other. He doesn’t wring his hands about the direction the world is headed, because he knows history well enough to see that the world has been pulled back from the edge of the abyss before. Of course, the fact that Guinness ultimately decides that our hope can only be placed in God’s will is going to make non-Christians and even some nominal Christians uncomfortable. But if you are a Christian who trusts in the character of God as revealed in the Scriptures and your own life, it is a much easier pill to swallow.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

ReFrame ReView: Living Out of the Christian Story

Many Christians are wondering how their faith can possibly relate to their everyday life. Often we see our faith as private—something that we do in our spare time or on the weekends, not something that shapes how we work and play every day. Even if we do bring faith into our everyday lives, it can seem tacked on. It is as if faith is limited to certain activities, and not something that comes out of the core of who we are.Screenshot 2014-11-13 20.50.55

To help us learn how faith relates to all of life, the folks at the Regent College Marketplace Institute (RCMI) have released ReFrame, a video course that explores what it means to follow Christ today. ReFrame seeks to explore how, in the words of Colossians 1:17, “in [Christ] all things hold together.” The introduction to each video in the course includes the following words, spoken by presenter Mark Mayhew:

The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ reframes everything, bringing hope, life, and meaning to every part of human culture. And yet many of us can’t see how our faith shapes much of everyday life and experience. What are God’s purposes for us? What does it mean to be made in the image of God? How do we live in the world but not of the world? We’re exploring, “How does the biblical story reframe our story?”

The course comes in ten episodes, each about 40 minutes long. Each episode includes a TED-style talk as well as brief interviews with various people like Eugene Peterson, Scot McKnight, Ruth Padilla DeBorst, Andy Crouch, Loren Wilkinson, J. I. Packer, Krish Kandiah, Soong-Chan Rah, and Katherine Leary Alsdorf. Since ReFrame is a product of the RCMI, it is not surprising that most of these have a connection to Regent College, whether they have been professors or taught summer school courses. I was very excited about this because of my own connection to Regent (I attended there 2004–08 and graduated with an MDiv), but I think this will be exciting to a much broader audience than just Regent nerds like myself.

The ten episodes are as follows; I’ve included the speakers in the list so you can see what an all-star cast it is:

1. The ReFraming Story (Speaker: Paul Williams)

2. Cultural Stories (Speaker: Sarah Williams)

3. Creation & Fall (Speaker: Iain Provan)

4. Israel’s Calling (Speaker: Phil Long)

5. Jesus the King (Speaker: Rikk Watts)

6. New Heavens & New Earth (Speaker: Rikk Watts)

7. The Church & the Spirit (Speaker: Bruce Hindmarsh)

8. Strangers & Exiles (Speaker: Paul Williams)

9. Ambassadors (Speaker: Paul Williams)

10. Joyful Living (Speaker: Polly Long)

In addition to the talks and brief interviews, each episode also features the story of (usually one) person who is trying to live out his or her Christian faith in a particular area. For example, Strangers & Exiles features the stories of teacher George Sanker, physicist Jennifer Wiseman, and car dealer Don Flow. Here is a promo for the series, and as you can see, the production value is great:

In addition to the videos, ReFrame comes with a Leader’s Guide and Participant’s Guide. Each session is intended to take about two hours, including the watching of the 40-minute video. The Leader’s Guide looks very similar to the Participant’s Guide, but includes notes for leaders next to the main text. Here is a page from the Participant’s Guide:

Participant Guide Sample

Here is the same page from the Leader’s Guide:

Leader Guide Sample

If you have been following this blog for a while, you know that back in 2009 I reviewed a video series called The Truth Project that was billed as a “Christian worldview experience.” I anticipate that, since the two may be seen to have similar goals and I have seen both, I might be asked which one I would prefer. I would definitely say ReFrame, not least because it has a better flow from being built around a story rather than topics. Also, while The Truth Project is very well done in many ways, there are a few spots where it has trouble differentiating between a Christian worldview and the worldview of culturally conservative Baby Boomers (for example, in its treatment of American history). As such, while much of the series is very valuable, I believe that it is unlikely to have much lasting cachet outside that demographic.

I wish that I could go through every episode of ReFrame in detail, but I don’t have the space or time to do that here. Perhaps if I go through the course with my small group or a larger group from my church (which I definitely want to do), I’ll be able to sit down and write an episode-by-episode review. In the meantime, if you want to get a closer look for yourself, you can watch episodes one and five in their entirety at this link.

I highly, highly recommend this course for group study, whether it is as a small group or as a church. I pray that God will use ReFrame to powerfully influence Christians around the world to live more fully out of, and show others how to live more fully out of, the most compelling and beautiful story there is.

Note: Thanks to the Regent College Marketplace Institute for a copy of ReFrame for the purpose of review, with no expectation as to the nature of the review.

Power Was Made for Flourishing: A Review

The word power has the ability to make even the least squeamish among us flinch. It can call to mind images of violence, abuse, and selfishness. When we hear the word power, we think of Lord Acton’s saying, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It is bad guys who have power, we think—even though it was He-Man, not Skeletor, who said “I have the power” in every episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe. Even people who want to use their power for good (so common knowledge tells us) must wield it cynically, unable to keep themselves from being dirtied by it. People who don’t want to compromise must avoid power at all costs.

Andy Crouch will have none of this kind of thinking. His contention, in his book Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, is that power is good. It is a gift. It is, he writes, “the ability to make something of the world” (17). He sets out to show us in this book what power was meant to be, and what it still can be. It is not always a zero-sum game, in which my increase in power means a decrease in someone else’s. We have been taught to think this way through the influence of thinkers like Nietzsche and Foucault, and it is reinforced during even the most civilly contested elections—which theoretically exist, somewhere. No, the best kind of power is when powerful people create new power in other people without the total power being reduced, as when a teacher teaches a student. In other words, not all power is domination. When we believe that all power is domination, and that the ultimate nature of reality is a power struggle, we believe a lie.

Instead, Crouch argues that the ultimate nature of reality is that God created us to bear his image. When we fail to worship God as his image bearers, we worship idols. “The question is whether we are making idols—investing created things with ultimate significance—or whether we are being ‘idols’ in the sense of Genesis 1:26, images and signs of the ultimate truth about the world” (97). The bad uses of power that we see on a regular basis are not the inevitable result of the nature of power itself. Rather, abuses of power are brought on by idolatry, and “in the beginning it was not so.”

Probably the most eye-opening parts of this book for me were the chapters “The Hiddenness of Power” and “The Lure of Privilege.” I am, like Crouch, a white male citizen of the United States. By virtue of those three things alone (not to mention other factors like education), I am privileged, and in ways that are mostly invisible to me. For example, I once heard a few friends, who were women, talk about their experiences of hearing whistles and catcalls as they walked down the street. Before hearing that conversation, I thought that sort of thing only happened in the movies (and old ones, at that), not in real life. I have never had that degrading experience, merely because being a man has granted me certain privileges that I did not ask for, and that I mostly take for granted. Crouch writes of Jesus that while he did not give up exercising power, he did give up the privilege and status that could have accrued to his power. I’m not entirely sure I agree with Crouch’s precise distinction between privilege and status, but I do agree that inherited power can be good at some times and bad at others.

I haven’t even touched on Crouch’s chapters on institutions, which are a helpful challenge to people who are suspicious of institutional power. This book is worth pondering slowly, and perhaps with a group of people. I found it difficult to read quickly. It is not that Crouch’s prose is undecipherable; he is in fact a clear and lucid writer. But his subject matter is such that I had to pause frequently and reflect on what he was saying. This book is worth reading, and re-reading, especially for anyone who is suspicious of or cynical about power.

Note: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Universe Isn’t Trying to Tell You Anything

One of my biggest pet peeves is people attributing agency to the universe. That may seem a little abstract, so let me illustrate using this bit of dialogue from “The Return,” a 2007 episode of The Office:

Jim is annoyed by his new co-worker Andy, who seems even more annoying than his old co-worker Dwight. So he says, “Congratulations universe, you win,” as if the universe has somehow gotten back at him for antagonizing Dwight.

If you start to notice this practice of talking about the universe as if it is a person, you’ll see it everywhere: TV, social media, conversations with friends. But the universe isn’t a person. It doesn’t have a mind. It doesn’t punish you or get back at you. It can’t find you a new apartment. It doesn’t tell anyone anything. Saying it does is like saying the ocean talks to you, or your car. And unless you’re David Hasselhoff, that’s crazy.

My Dad wrote a blog post recently presenting the idea that belief in conspiracy theories acts as a substitute for belief in God. People begin by deciding not to believe in God, or at least in any God who is capable of acting in the universe today. But human beings hate to believe that life is random and purposeless. We hate it so much that after we decide we are not going to believe in God or anything we regard as “supernatural,” we will actively seek out and believe conspiracy theories, just so we won’t have to feel that the universe doesn’t have a purpose. Believing in a sinister, cleverly orchestrated plot is preferable to believing in purposelessness.

I think the same thing is happening here. People decide not to believe in God—or at least in any God who is capable of acting in the universe today—but they hate to think that everything is random, so they attribute agency to the universe. They say that it is trying to tell them something, or they ask it to do something else. But it can’t. It isn’t a person. It doesn’t “tell,” and it doesn’t “do.” It is a space in which agents act; that’s all.

Tell a Story that Captures Hearts: A Review

Imagining the Kingdom is the second volume of a projected trilogy by James K.A. Smith called Cultural Liturgies. In the first book, Desiring the Kingdom (which I have not read, but Smith gets the reader up to speed in the early parts of this book), Smith argued that humans are primarily shaped more by the imagination than the intellect. It is the stories we inhabit, and not so much the arguments we believe, that give our lives purpose. In other words, “we don’t think our way through to action; much of our action is not the outcome of rational deliberation and conscious choice. Much of our action is not ‘pushed’ by ideas or conclusions; rather, it grows out of our character and is in a sense ‘pulled’ out of us by our attraction to a telos [end or goal].” We are shaped by the liturgies that tell attractive (not attractive in the sense of “pleasant,” but rather, “resonant”) stories and fuel our imaginations, whether those liturgies are secular or religious: “Through a vast repertoire of secular liturgies we are quietly assimilated to the earthly city of disordered loves…. So we toddle off to church or Bible study week after week … without realizing that we spend the rest of the week making bread for idols (Jer. 7:18).”

In this book, Smith looks specifically at what that insight means for the practices of worship and Christian education. The book comes in two parts. In part 1, the theoretical part of the book, Smith walks the reader through expositions of Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu, asking what their theoretical models of how we are formed might mean for how we worship. In part 2, the practical part, Smith talks explicitly about how the theory discussed in part 1 reframes Christian formation and gives a fresh understanding of how worship works.

Smith intentionally pitches this book to be accessible to both worship practitioners and the academy, meaning that one audience will think there are too many footnotes, and the other will think there are not enough.

It is an enjoyable and thought-provoking (as well as, it is hoped, practice-provoking) read. Throughout, Smith attempts to practice what he preaches by telling his readers stories that enable them to imagine what he is talking about. One of my favorites comes early in the book, when he talks about the disconnect between thought and action he experienced when he was reading (and approving) the agrarian writer Wendell Berry while sitting in a Costco.

But since the ultimate goal of the book is the renewal of practice, I was hoping for a bit more in part 2. How can this formation take place? What are some habits of worship that can be used to re-orient us? If we are shaped by stories, I wanted Smith to tell stories about how it has been done in a few communities. Smith points, for example, to the importance of the arts for the church, but by the end of the book I was not quite sure exactly what he meant: painting during a worship service? Liturgical dance? Preach stories instead of sermons? Although I deeply resonated with the argument of Imagining the Kingdom, I think there is a danger—like reading Wendell Berry in Costco—of reading, agreeing, and yet not having the map to get to the place Smith is pointing us to. Perhaps Smith plans on doing more of this in volume three.

Note: Thanks to Baker Academic for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

How Should Christians Engage with the Built Environment? A Review

The year after I graduated from college, I lived in an apartment in the West End of Richmond, VA. There was a public library about a half mile away from my apartment. Occasionally I would walk to the library, but it was an unpleasant experience. In that half mile, I had to walk along two busy roads, neither of which had a sidewalk. Like many parts of cities that developed in the United States after World War II, the West End is primarily designed for automobiles, not pedestrians. “If you want to go to the library,” the city planner is telling you, “you’re supposed to use your car.” Even if the library is only a half mile away.

Following my time in the pedestrian-unfriendly West End, I lived in three places that were much more pleasant to walk in: Prague, Czech Republic; Budapest, Hungary; and Vancouver, Canada. In the six years that I lived in those places, I did not have a car. I didn’t need one. With the help of public transit, I was able to go everywhere I wanted to go on foot.

Being a Christian who recognized that my quality of life was affected by how different places I’ve lived were constructed, I was eager to read The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment by Eric O. Jacobsen. Jacobsen is a pastor who has done a lot of thinking about what human-made elements make a place pleasant or unpleasant to live in (you can read an interview with him about the book here). This is his second book on the subject, his first being Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith. Not having read the earlier book, I’m not competent to say how they differ. I can only say that this one is longer than Sidewalks in the Kingdom, and while it does talk about New Urbanism, that is not the primary subject. It seems broader in scope.

Jacobsen sets out in this book to introduce the built environment to the Christian community, and to make the case that Christians ought to care about creating built environments that lead to human thriving. The book comes in three parts: The first part is Orientation, in which Jacobsen asks readers to think about who they are, and how they are situated in space and time. His primary audience is North American, and he gives a lot of history on how and why North America has been built in the way it has. The second part is Participation, in which Jacobsen asks readers to think about the different agents who enact community life in a particular place: families, political groups, and churches. The final part is Engagement, in which Jacobsen challenges his readers to ask hard questions about how their Christian faith ought to interact with the built environment, creating places that are sustainable and loved.

This is a book both for those who already know and care about the built environment, and for those who have not thought about it much, but are curious. I fall into the latter camp, and over and over again I found that Jacobsen gave me language to name things that I already felt. I knew that certain built environments made me comfortable or uncomfortable, and now I know more why that is. It could be a challenging read at times, since a lot of the vocabulary was new, but it was worth the effort. Jacobsen’s chapter on sustainability was challenging in a different way; some of what he writes about human thriving, environmental stewardship, and justice will challenge assumptions held by some of his fellow Christians. That, in my opinion, is a good thing.

For people in my generation, “The Space Between” is, first and foremost, a Dave Matthews Band song. But it is now also a welcome invitation for Christians to form convictions about how their faith should affect the built environment, and begin to act on those convictions. Not everyone will have the time or the ability to make large-scale changes in the places where they live—after all, the built environments we live in now have taken shape over generations, and sin is present with us even as we seek to build better places to live. But everyone can begin to make small changes that help to “seek the peace of the city” where God has placed them (Jer 29:7), as we ultimately look forward to the city “whose architect and builder is God” (Heb 11:10).

Note: Thanks to Baker Academic for a review copy of this book. I was not asked to give a positive review.

Publisher: Baker Academic
Reading Length: 277 pages
Rating: 4 stars