Upside-Down Spirituality, Chad Bird. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.
Summary: Highlights nine areas in which Christian faith turns cultural conventions on their head, turning the world “upside-down.”
When you ask most people what they think a real Christian is, the answer is often some version of people who are nicer than those around them. Often, we buy that, adopting the way those around us think of a good, or even successful life, covering it with a veneer of Christian-y sounding language.
Years ago, I had a seminary course in New Testament Ethics, the primary text of which was Allen Verhey’s The Great Reversal. I have to admit that at the time, I still regarded Christian ethics as a nicer version of the world’s, but was bothered by the title. Over the years of reading and re-reading the Bible, I began to suspect more and more that Jesus really did inaugurate a great reversal, literally turning the world’s ethics on their head, blessing the meek and the humble and making the least the greatest.
Chad Bird’s Upside-Down Spirituality develops a similar idea. Whereas we tend to celebrate good people who succeed, Bird proposes that this common sense needs to be turned on its head. He proposes:
“Failures of a faithful life–that’s what we’ll be talking about in the chapters that follow. What this world’s common-sense wisdom reckons as failures, anyway. The failure to be extraordinary, the failure to live independent lives, the failure to go big or go home, the failure to think love sustains our marriages, even the failure to have a personal relationship with Jesus….For there are areas in all our lives–personally, in our families and marriages, as well as in our churches–where we’ve become so habituated to the empty platitudes of our culture that we don’t even realize our hearts have gone astray” (p. 24).
Bird discusses nine failures under three categories. The first category is how we think of ourselves. He challenges the idea of believing in the God who believes in you. Instead, he argues that God doesn’t believe in us but through “Jesus only” we discover the God who loves us despite our failures. He contends that failing to make a name for ourselves, living what may be hidden lives of faithfulness carries the great assurance that our names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. He calls out a culture that urges us to follow our hearts, and invites us to follow not our hearts, but Jesus.
The second part considers how we think about our lives. He begins by puncturing the dream of being the perfect parent. He cites a Facebook post outlining a long litany of things the perfect mom does and contrasts it with the list used by former generations: “feed them sometimes.” The truth is that all of us who have been parents have done mediocre jobs, and that our real hope is that our children grow up, not in perfect houses with perfect parents, but in houses of grace where we all come to understand that our hope is being God’s forgiven children. Instead of questing for our ideal “calling,” Bird challenges us that there is no sacred-secular divide, and that we may live as called persons wherever we are, and in whatever we do.
The chapter in this part I loved the most was where he argues against the myth of finding one’s soulmate. When I hear marrying couples say this, I either gag or tremble, fearing that they are headed to an early divorce if they don’t wake up to the reality that no person can live up to that ideal. We are both unique, and often self-centered and marriage will sooner or later bring those differences and our fallenness to the surface. Bird proposes that it is not love that sustains marriages, but rather marriages that sustain love as we press into Christ for his help to do what is humanly impossible.
Finally he challenges some of the success myths of the church. One is the myth of us versus them, that to not conform to the world, we need to cut ourselves off from the world. He explores what it means to be resident aliens, building bridges into Babylon, seeking its peace and prosperity, even as we embrace our true citizenship in the kingdom. He gives the lie to having “a personal relationship with Jesus,” that faith is a private thing. Rather, we relate to Jesus as part of communities who are his body.
His final chapter wonders about something I’ve wondered about. Why do so many of us drive past fifty churches to go to the “big box” church across town rather than worshiping with those who live near where we live? He contends that instead of buying into “bigger is better,” we find contentment and joy wherever the crucified and risen Christ is preached.
Each chapter ends with a “beatitude,” all of which are summarized at the end. A couple of my favorites:
3. “Blessed are those who don’t follow their hearts, for they follow the Lamb where he goes.”
5. Blessed are those who fail to find their calling, for theirs is the kingdom where life and love and service find them.”
Bird writes with candor and vulnerability. He’s been through a divorce and done everything from pastor to drive a big rig. He punctures the success myths of contemporary Christianity as one who has failed and found grace, and a far more vibrant and honest life as a humble follower of Christ. He offers hope that when we fail, we may be closer than ever to the grace of God and the kingdom of Jesus, who turns the world upside down.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.