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.