Resurrecting Religion, Greg Paul. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2018.
Summary: In an era when religion has a bad name, the author proposes that what we need is not “no religion” but the kind of religion that James writes about, and that his church is trying to live out.
John Lennon’s “Imagine” has become kind of an anthem for our age, particularly with it’s suggest that we imagine a world with no religion. The author of this book suggests there is good reason for this, that there are many examples of bad religion out there that might disillusion some from the whole “religion project.” There is religion that is insensitive to the poor, that is racist, that is hypocritical, or simply irrelevant.
Greg Paul would contend that the answer to bad religion is not “no religion” but the kind of religion that James, the brother of Jesus wrote about:
“Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
In this book, he takes us through the book of James, weaving in narrative of Sanctuary Toronto, a church that takes seriously ministering to the poor, the homeless, all those society tends to write off, forming a community with these people. Their mission to the poor isn’t a once a year volunteer stint at a soup kitchen, but regular communal meals served by all the community to all the community–rich and poor together.
All this comes from taking scripture seriously, and particularly the challenges in James to care for the poor, and that faith without deeds is dead. He argues that the pollution about which James is concerned is a church that shows partiality to the rich rather than seeking to bless the people Jesus blesses in the beatitudes. He writes about Matt, whose abilities to form attachments and exercise judgment was impaired from birth by fetal alcohol syndrome. Loved despite all his faults and struggles with addiction, he ended up taking his life. Paul writes of Matt:
“In all of my reading of commentary on the Beatitudes, I’ve never found anyone who went so far as to say this straight out, so I will: What Jesus taught that day means that Matt, regardless of what he believed about doctrinal concepts such as ‘the person and work of Christ,’ is a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. He was, in fact, thus blessed from the moment of his birth–you could say, in his case, that because he was born screwed, he was also born into the Kingdom and carried the passport all his life, even if he didn’t realize it” (p. 112).
This makes sense of a community that loves the most unlikely–they believe these are the blessed of the kingdom in the beatitudes. Perhaps most moving is his story of Al and Mike. Al was a bicycle courier, a Mixed Nations person, and pretty rough around the edges. Mike was a successful businessman, who one day was in an accident that ended Al’s life. The most unlikely followed. Mike became a part of the community, loved not because he was rich and accepted despite killing one of their beloved members.
Following James’ teaching, this is a community that is learning to listen more than speaking, to find wisdom in submission to God. They are seeking to live out, as the book’s final chapter describes, a new reformation they desperately believe is needed throughout the church. He believes such a community actually follows Jesus into the places he would go, preaches a whole integrated gospel, focuses on practical justice, directs its energies outward, and committed to being a real community and not a social club.
This is not a comfortable book. But neither is James letter. Both sound like they deny, at points, the life of faith, for an emphasis on works. But in our era of designer, big box suburban churches, it seems to me a greater venture of faith to set out to follow Jesus as this community does. It takes them into human pain for which there are no easy answers even while they proclaim and live great grace.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.