Review: The Thrill of Orthodoxy

The Thrill of Orthodoxy, Trevin Wax (Foreword by Kevin Vanhoozer). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: Spirited advocacy for orthodox belief as vibrant, broad, crucial in the battle before us, and for the renewal of God’s people.

Many are the voices echoing Bishop John Shelby Spong advocating “Christianity must change or die.” Orthodoxy is portrayed as dead, sterile, narrow, confining, and irrelevant. In an era of politicized Christianity, culture wars and accommodations, and moral scandals that have left many deconstructing their faith, the temptation is to associate dogma with dogmatism–the sooner abandoned the better.

Trevin Wax would contend just the opposite. Writing in the tradition of figures like G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers, he would advocate that the way forward for both personal and communal renewal in the church is to return to the central creeds of the church, those that have defined the “communion of the saints” across the millenia and around the world. He offers the following picture to articulate his vision of the “thrill” of orthodoxy:

“Orthodoxy is an ancient castle with spacious rooms and vaulted ceilings and mysterious corridors, a vast expanse of practical wisdom handed down from our forefathers and mothers in the faith. Some inhabit the castle but fail to sift through its treasures. Others believe the castle stands in the way of progress and should be torn down. A few believe the castle’s outer shell can remain for aesthetic purposes, so long as the interior is gutted. But in every generation, God raises up those who see the value in the treasure, men and women who maintain a deep and abiding commitment to recognize and accentuate the unique beauty of Christian truth so that future generations can be ushered into its splendor” (p. 9).

Wax defines orthodoxy as “the foundational truths, consistent with the Scriptures, upon which Christians through the ages have demonstrated agreement.”

He follows this introduction with a discussion of the ways we drift from orthodoxy, usually without intent. but rather with the complacent “of course.” Some drift into a place of affirming the faith to accepting a lifeless Christianity, distant from God. Some drift into a pragmatic, “whatever works” where action becomes detached from conviction and degenerates into niceness. Yet others downplay uncomfortable beliefs that they would jettison, and perhaps do. Finally, some become more enamored with the good the church can do rather than the transforming good the gospel can do. For each, the problem is gradual drift and the antidote is the thrill of orthodoxy.

Wax argues the adventure begins with discovering who God is and what God has done. While acknowledging mystery, he contends that it is not all mystery but that God has revealed himself and calls us to the encounter of a person: who do you say that I am? We discover that certain boundaries lead to freedom and that humility rather than arrogance is essential to the understanding of truth.

He contends against those who argue that we shouldn’t fuss with the details that details matter. He proposes, for example, that the belief in original sin leaves no room for any form of moral or class superiority–we are all tainted by sin and all need salvation without exception. Even a single letter matters, such as the difference between homoousios (that the Father and Son are of the same substance) and homoiousios (that the Father and Son are of similar substance). As Karl Barth noted, his theology could be summed up with the children’s song, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” The volumes of Barth’s theology flow from this simple statement.

One of the most striking chapters for me was that in which Wax contends that far from representing a broadening, heresy represents a narrowing. It ends up pitting one truth against another in attempt to make Christianity simpler. But to do so is always to make it smaller, less inclusive than the both-and of orthodoxy. He goes on to advocate for a humble but confident orthodoxy that neither accommodates itself to the world nor retreats from it but rather is “against the world for the world.” It is against self-help for salvation, against naturalism for a world of wonders, against sin for sanctification, and against wealth for true riches. Do you notice that, in all of these, orthodoxy wages battles against falsehoods for the love of the world and its people? When we lower the eternal stakes connected with orthodoxy, we raise the earthly stakes of other things–whether nationalism, racial purity, social justice as salvation, or whatever.

Orthodoxy beckons us to a quest of moral excellence and radical generosity that is always on the penitential path, becoming ever more aware of how far we have to go, and the grace that has been given us that calls us on. He argues that the beating heart of orthodoxy is not adaptation but application, where we take old truths and apply them to new situations, becoming a church that is always re-forming. He reminds us of the journey of Thomas Oden, who cycled through every new theological fad until challenged to go back to the Church Fathers (by a Jewish rabbi no less!) and found himself in a new place of freedom that spanned time and cultures. Orthodoxy is the eternal song of the church, reminding us both where we have come from and of our eternal destiny as the people of a holy, creating and redeeming God of wonders.

Reading Wax is like a plunge into cold, clear, sparkling waters, awakening us from the dull, the tarnished, the clouded indifference of drifting from orthodoxy. It can be both intensely uncomfortable and utterly invigorating. Wax may make you angry or lead you into the delights of the splendor of God. What he won’t do is leave you nicely indifferent. He challenges our creeping universalism, our pragmatic activism divorced from its theological roots, and our accommodations to our culture’s sexual ethics. Yet I find nothing censorious in his tone but rather, as he puts it, a stance against the world for the world–that is out of deep love for what truly contributes to the flourishing of humans created in the image of God. This book is like the fire alarm that cuts through our dreaming slumbers allowing us to find our way to safety and freedom. It is also like the call of Gandalf to home-loving hobbits to glorious and risky adventures–except that the call to us is not a fiction but to an undying future hope.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Inalienable

Inalienable, Eric Costanzo, Daniel Yang, and Matthew Soerens. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.

Summary: The three authors propose that voices from the margins and the kingdom-focused vision of service to the neighbor, even the most needy, may be the voices that bring renewal to the American church.

It seems that a favorite current topic is the parlous state of the American church, at least the White evangelical church. Some other parts of the church in America, particularly the immigrant churches, are doing well. And that leads to the point of this book, that it is time for the American church to listen to those we have considered “on the margins,” whether from other countries, especially in the global south, or even marginalized communities in our own country.

The authors are a pastor who works among the marginalized in Tulsa, a missiologist who came here in childhood as a Hmong refugee, and an immigration reform advocate. They are people who were raised in white evangelical culture but have been listening to the voices of those on the margins. They contend that these voices have called their attention to “inalienable truths,” not from the American founders but the pages of scripture. They are truths that confront us with the “there is no other God” (a good translation of the Latin alius).

They center on four themes. First of all, the inalienable truth of the gospel is centered on the kingdom of God, the growing, global advance of God’s rule of justice, peace, and life in Christ. Our call is not one of trying to retrieve an ideal of national greatness but to press into what God is doing. To do so will require “de-centering” white leadership–a recognition that Christians are pursuing the mission of God’s kingdom from every part of the world, and one group, whites, do not get to speak for them. Rather than fearing the increasing diversity of peoples in America, we ought celebrate the increasing realization of God’s multi-ethnic kingdom in our midst.

The second theme is the forsaking of our American idols and embracing the image of God in our neighbors. The writers identify individualism, materialism and consumerism, celebritism, Christian nationalism, and tribalism and partisanship. The Instagram tag, PreachersNSneakers with pictures of the expensive footwear of celebrity pastors is reflective of several of these idolatries. There is nothing for this but lament and repentance. Instead of idols, we need to recognize God’s “images”–the diverse peoples of our community and world who are the real deal of which idols are counterfeits–people made for relationship with God, and as those fully alive through Him, reflecting his very glory. This includes the “others” we dehumanize (the first step to a Holocaust). The authors offer a chilling example of how the words we use can accelerate this dehumanization process.

Third, our brothers and sisters from marginalized churches teach us that nothing transforms like God speaking through the scriptures. While we have unprecedented Bible study resources, are we those who see and yet do not see, who hear but don’t truly hear or understand? Perhaps listening humbly and honestly to those from other cultures, to stop thinking we must be teachers and to place ourselves in the place of learners might help us hear afresh. When we do so, we will hear the concern of God for the poor, for those on the margins, and for the refugees whose number include Hagar, Moses, the refugee from Pharoah’s court, Rahab of Jericho, Ruth the Moabite, and the Holy Family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus.

Fourth, and perhaps most challenging is the call to mission. Many Christians assume this is either partisan, pursuing a political agenda from which religious renewal is hopefully the fruit, or apolitical–witness without advocacy. They invite us into the mission of the gospel of the kingdom that proclaims our hope in Christ in both reconciliation with God, and reconciling all things, including unjust structures in Christ. Witness and advocacy are not opposed but joined. At the same time, as we think of God’s global mission, we are in the age of the Great Collaboration, a time when we work alongside indigenous believers in bringing a contextualized gospel to those who do not yet believe.

This is a book of hope rather than hand-wringing. The reflection questions and action steps in each chapter evidence a conviction that we may change and there is good to be done. But it involves humble listening and to learn from the other rather than think that we have all the answers. Perhaps the devastating exodus and scandals of the white evangelical church have a silver lining of calling into question the things we thought were “answers.” The question is whether we will double-down, allying ourselves with those who seek a return to some form of mythical greatness, or whether we will lament and repent and listen to those on the margins who may be bringing a “Word of the Lord” to us to embrace the “inalienable truths” of the living God.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Resurrecting Religion

resurrecting religion

Resurrecting ReligionGreg 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.

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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.