Review: Subversive Sabbath

Subversive Sabbath

Subversive SabbathA. J. Swoboda, Foreword by Matthew Sleeth, MD. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2018.

Summary: An extended argument showing how keeping sabbath is a counter-cultural, subversive practice in every area of life.

Apart from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic, The Sabbath, I would consider this the best book I have read on Sabbath. In a world focused on relentless doing, Swoboda challenges the Christian community to take the sabbath commands as seriously as we do the other nine, observing it is the only command speaking of something as “holy” to the Lord. His argument is that to begin to take this seriously is a subversive act, and perhaps one of the most significant way the church can bear witness to the transcendent reality of God. He writes:

“How is the Sabbath subversive? The truth remains that Sabbath will be challenging for anyone to live out in our busy, frenetic world. Sabbath goes against the very structured and system of the world we have constructed. Sabbath, then, becomes a kind of resistance to that world. Such resistance must be characterized as overwhelmingly good. In other words, if Sabbath is hard, then we are doing it right. It is never a sign of health or godliness to be well-adjusted to a sick society….Relating to our world of death, ‘going along’ is a sign of death. Living fish swim against the stream. Only the dead go with the flow” (p. xi).

The book consists of four parts, each with three chapters: Sabbath for Us, Sabbath for Others, Sabbath for Creation, and Sabbath for Worship. Beginning with Sabbath for Us, the first chapter explores Sabbath and Time, and the marvel that the first day life for Adam and Eve was a sabbath, where they rested along with God, and how hard it is for us to do the same. Sabbath and Work calls us to establishing rhythms of work and rest and challenges our worship of work instead of a reliance upon God when we do not work that carries into our work. Sabbath and Health speaks into how often we cannot say “no” when God says “no” and invites us for our health’s sake to rest.

In Sabbath for Others, Swoboda begins with Relationships, and how Sabbath practiced together may overcome the isolation of our lives and strengthen community. In Sabbath, Economy and Technology, Swoboda challenges us to think about how we prepare for the Sabbath in advance, and how we might do so in ways that others also enjoy rest, and how to manage our technology so we step away from our screens (he just went from preaching to meddling here!). He takes this further in Sabbath and the Marginalized, considering the implications of practicing the Sabbath so that the poor, the marginalized, the under-employed also find rest.

Sabbath for Creation begins by focusing on the intricate balance of creation and how Sabbath neglected is part of the the degradation of creation. He proposes that Sabbath is the string that holds everything together and that Sabbath-keeping is earth-keeping. Sabbath and the Land focuses particularly on how land needs sabbath to be restored, fallow periods every seven years that enrich the soil to enrich us. Sabbath and Critters (!) focuses on how we treat our animals, even to the point of suggesting chickens get a Sabbath from laying, and that all our animals need rhythms of rest.

Part Four centers around Sabbath as Worship, the ways we glorify God in community and in the world. It is Witness, setting us apart as this weird, contrast society that might be intriguing to tired, burnt out friends. It is Worship, and sometimes what we sacrifice rest for tells us what we falsely worship. It calls us into the trust that believes by not doing but by resting, we will experience God’s care. It is Discipleship that helps clear out what should not be in our lives, that exposes the noise inside us in times of silence, and helps us rightly order our lives into a new week.

While Swoboda interacts with a number of theological writers, literary figures, and others throughout this work, as well as the scriptures, his own stories of trying and failing and learning and pressing into Sabbath practice made this reader want to follow him into what appears a richer fuller way found by stopping and resting. He doesn’t present Sabbath as a cure all, but does propose that this command/gift is God’s way of liberating us from our hurried, distracted, alienated, consuming selves. Not only does this help liberate us from our false selves; Sabbath helps us to meet the true God. I will close with this:

“We worship the God who invented the weekend. This is why biblical scholar Al Baylis contends that ‘Genesis 1 is one of the most remarkable put-downs ever administered.’ The biblical creation account essentially served as a theological rebuttal of all the other ‘gods’ who never allowed anyone to rest. In a restless world, Yahweh required rest. Again, imagine what kind of first impression that would have given to an ancient person’s understanding of Yahweh. The God of Scripture not only rests himself but invites the world to rest with him” (pp. 9-10).


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.

Review: A Glorious Dark

A Glorious DarkSummary: An exploration of living in the tension of the glorious hope of Christian faith and the dark, unsettling realities of our lives through reflections grouped around the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of the Triduum of Holy Week. A great book to read reflectively during Holy Week.

A. J. Swoboda opens this book with the image of a frozen river, apparently dead and still on the surface, but beneath the ice, flowing and alive–“a glorious dark”, he calls it, which he sees as an image for our faith, lived in the tension between our surprising and glorious hope and the struggles and questions and failures of our own lives.

The book is organized around the three days of the Triduum: Good Friday, Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Friday is the time when we are faced with the reality that “the monster at the end of the book” (reprising his childhood hero Scooby Doo is us. He explores our struggles with God’s “Fatherhood” and how Jesus discloses something of the kind of Father we have in God. He explores how God journeys with us in life, making the map as we go. Perhaps the most striking chapter in the Friday section is titled “Numb” where he describes his own struggle with alcoholism and the striking moment where Jesus refuses to numb the pain of the cross with alcohol and myrrh. And he concludes with the striking moment where God seems to forsake God on the cross.

Saturday is about waiting in uncertainty. We want to move right from suffering to triumph. In some sense, our whole lives right now are lived between Good Friday and Easter in Holy Saturday and it is there we must sit. Saturday tells us we can’t pick and choose our life in some kind of “faith boutique”. We must learn to rest in this day which for the Jews is “sabbath” before the Sunday of new creation.

And then there is Sunday–beginning for Swoboda with the amazing vindication of Mother Mary in the Resurrection–the woman who as a pregnant teen, claimed she was yet a virgin, visited only by an angel of the Lord. If resurrection is true, then all the other incredible things in the narratives of Jesus beginning with this virgin conception make sense and Mary can say, “told you so!” It confronts us with surprise, a different kind of super-hero, and gives us a community that eats together, even as Jesus ate with his disciples on the shore of Galilee before being taken from them.

What I so appreciated about Swoboda was his ability to “tell it slant” (in the words of Emily Dickinson)–to help us see afresh the surprising and wonderful character of the Christian story as it breaks into our flawed and sometimes dark existence. In place of stories that have become routine and seem not to have the power to keep us awake let alone raise the dead and transform life, his writing helps capture the startling character of what we call “the good news”. One example of this comes early in the book when he writes:

“Certainly God is holy–holy beyond all perceivable knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. But Hosea throws us a curveball in our understanding of how a holy God deals with unholiness. Perhaps in other religions the deities deal with evil through finger-pointing, shouting matches, or even the silencing of a perpetrator. But in Hosea, God not only looks upon evil–God takes evil on a honeymoon. How does God deal with evil?

He puts a ring on it” (pp. 19-20).

I found myself pausing again and again in thankful wonder at the glory that pierces our darkness that Swoboda explores in these reflections. It has helped prepare my heart for Holy Week and I wanted to post this review today so that others might find this resource for their own Holy Week reflections.


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. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”