Review: Less of More

less is more

Less of MoreChris Nye. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary: Proposes that the American dream is making us miserable and that the vision of the kingdom turns the American dream upside down, leading us to a truly rich life.

Chris Nye proposes that the American dream is killing us. Visions of unlimited growth are pressing up against the operating limits of the only place where we can live. Depression and suicide among the young are rising. Our politics are mired in discord pitting groups who share a common citizenship against one another. Nye writes, “we never had more than we do now, and we’ve never been more depressed about it,”

Nye’s challenge in this book is the counter-cultural message of Jesus that we must lose our lives to save them. He contends that the American dreams of growth, self-sufficiency, fame, power, and wealth are gained at the cost of our souls. In chapters on each of these “dreams” he articulates the alternative the gospel of Jesus offers.

He speaks to our infatuation with growth, especially the infatuation among Christians with church growth and measuring goodness by bigness. He counters that the message of the gospel is one of “pace,” of keeping pace with God’s often slow but certain work of transformation. He challenges the hyper-individualism of our culture and the idea that we are more connected than ever with the reality that many are more isolated than ever. He observes the gospel alternative of the connectedness of the welcoming table. He contrasts the quest for fame and gaining a name for oneself with the practice of hiddenness and the downward journey exemplified by Henri Nouwen and Jean Vanier at the L’Arch Communities.

The culture defines greatness in terms of power. Nye proposes the humble and vulnerable community, where we reveal rather than hide weakness, and stoop to serve and protect each other. Finally we define ourselves by how much we are worth, by the wealth we have accumulated. Nye invites us to discover that while saving might feel good, giving feels great.

Nye concludes with a pointed challenge. Despite dreams of American greatness, history tells us that the American Epoch will end, the Empire will fall. Christian hope has survived the fall of every empire and challenges us to consider to which we have given our allegiance. He writes, “To follow Jesus is to follow him out of America and into the kingdom of God, from our own weak, man-made houses and into the mansions he has built that await us.”

I wouldn’t be surprised that there is pushback to this book (and perhaps this review). We want both the American dream and to have Jesus to as our eternal insurance policy. It seems to me that Nye is on good ground here in arguing that these are diametrically opposed to one another and that we can’t have both. Jesus himself said that we can’t have two masters, and the truth is that both the American dream and the call of the kingdom of God are a call to serve a master. But Nye goes further. He names the things that make are making us miserable, and the alternative life of the kingdom that restores wholeness. Nye diagnoses our American sickness. The question is whether we will recognize our dis-ease, and what can make us well.

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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.

 

 

Review: Created & Creating

Created and Creating

Created & Creating, William Edgar. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Explores the idea of “culture” from secular and Christians perspectives, explores the biblical basis for the culture mandate and continued cultural engagement, and the arguments raised against this idea.

Ever since the publication of Andy Crouch’s Culture-Making, there has been a renewed interest among many in engaging one’s culture, “seeking the peace and prosperity of the city” (Jeremiah 29:7). What William Edgar adds to this discussion is a biblical exploration of the basis Christians have for cultural engagement.

Edgar offers this definition of culture engagement, which also gives you a sense of the thesis of the book:

“Cultural engagement is the human response to the divine call to enjoy and develop the world that God has generously given to his image bearers. Culture includes the symbols, the tools, the conventions, the social ties, and all else contributing to this call. Cultural activity occurs in a historical setting, and is meant to improve the human condition.  Because of the fall, culture can, and has become sinister. Christ’s redeeming grace moves culture in the right direction, ennobles it, and allows it to extend the realm of God’s shalom, his goodness, his justice, his love” (pp. 233-234).

After an introductory chapter looking at definitions of culture, and the ideas of cultivation in scripture, Part One looks at the leading secular and Christian thinkers who have contributed to the discuss. There are Matthew Arnold, Marx, the anthropologists and sociologists like E. B. Tylor and Max Weber, and functionalists like A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski. He then considers Christian voices including Eliot, H. Richard Niebuhr, Lewis, Kuyper, and Klaas Schilder, who first coined the term “culture mandate.”

Part Two engages the objections raised to the culture mandate.  First he explores the contra mundum passages that seemingly set the gospel against the world and imply that cultural pursuits are distractions or simply idolatrous. Second is the idea that life in the world is spiritual resistance and conflict. The world is not our friend. And finally, it’s all going to burn. In these chapters, he acknowledges the force of these criticisms and yet distinguishes between the real consequences of the fall, and the defaced but not destroyed image of God in humans. In the final chapter in Part Two, he looks at the cosmic character of Christ’s redemptive work, portrayed both in Colossians 1:15-20, and in the Magnificat of Mary. The redemption covers all things in creation and human society.

Part Three then works these ideas out more fully. First Edgar considers the “cultural mandate” given the first couple before the fall–fruitfulness and dominion. He then traces how this was both worked out and marred in a post-fall world, how Israel anticipates the redemptive work of Christ. The chapter on culture in the new covenant makes an important argument for Christ’s great commission being a fulfillment and deeper implementation of the culture mandate, sending disciples to the dispersed nations, announcing God’s kingdom, discipling them to do all Christ has commanded in all of life–essentially a culture mandate for a redeemed world, anticipating the new heaven and earth. The last chapter in this part considers the afterlife, a culturally rich life enjoyed in the presence of God, at the great banquet of the bride with all the nations, and ruling and reigning and restoring.

Edgar’s brief epilogue points the way for further study, and how the study of the biblical cultural mandate lays the groundwork for human flourishing that is proximate, awaiting the final redemption of all things. Edgar in this book lays the groundwork for Christians joyfully pursuing Christ in “every good endeavor,” to use Tim Keller’s phrase. This is important for many Christians who refrain from these endeavors because they seem “worldly,” or pursue them, but do not see them as an integral part of a faithful Christian life. Edgar helps us see that the culture mandate is not opposed to the great commission, or superseded by it, but rather is fulfilled through it. In sum, Edgar helps us see all of life, and life’s possibilities through the eyes of Christ. How different life might be when everything matters!

Review: Recovering Classic Evangelicalism

Recovering Classical Evangelicalism

Recovering Classic EvangelicalismGregory Alan Thornbury. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013.

Summary: Addressing an evangelical context that seemingly has lost a sense of its identity, core convictions, and model for cultural engagement, the author commends a re-appraisal of the work of Carl F. H. Henry as a source of wisdom for the future.

It seems there are numerous books being published at present addressing what is perceived the parlous state of the contemporary church in America. They seem to fall into two camps. Either they recommend innovation, or they call for a return or recovery of some lost tradition, whether the church fathers, Benedict, or the Reformers.

This book, written particularly for that part of the church that would identify as “evangelical” proposes that the way forward is to recover the philosophical, theological, and cultural vision of the movement birthed in the post-World War II years. This was the time of the founding of Christianity Today as a periodical of both evangelical conviction and theological and intellectual heft, befitting the concerns of two of its’  founders, Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry. This work focuses on the work of Henry, who was evangelicalism’s leading theologian, probably until his death in 2003.

Thornbury hardly consider’s Henry to be perfect, and in the first chapter enumerates some of the flaws in both his personality and work. He also chronicles the “drubbing” Henry has faced from scholars criticizing his commitments to inerrancy, his epistemology, and more. Furthermore, what may be his most significant work, his six-volume systematic theology, God, Revelation, and Authority is also largely unread and unknown, particularly because few got beyond its first, densely written volume. Yet Thornbury commends Henry as a model of someone who brought a Christian mind to bear on both the theological and cultural questions facing evangelicalism, and as one whose example and advocacy paved the way for renewed efforts to bring Christian thought to bear in the academy and the culture.

The focus of Thornbury’s discussion is volumes two and four of God, Revelation, and Authority (hereafter GRA) and Henry’s much more approachable The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.  He focuses on four significant contributions of Henry that he believes deserve renewed attention. First was his rooting epistemology in a God who reveals God’s self and does so in language and propositions.  Second was that theology matters, and here, he focuses his discussion around the fifteen theses found in volume two of GRA. He engages the theology of speech-act theory and the work of Hans Frei and Kevin Van Hoozer, and still comes back to the idea that while language may do more than what Henry allowed, it does no less–that we may find more than just theological propositions arising from the scripture, but for a God who reveals God’s self effectively, we will find no less.

For Henry, the inerrancy of scripture, so much under fire even in evangelical circles today, was of utmost concern because of its connection to the authority. His concerns were not merely liberal criticism, but the hermeneutical relativism of Continental philosophy. It was not that Henry was unmindful of both problem texts in scripture and the fallibility of interpreters. Rather, he was convinced that concessions here would cast a shadow over the whole of scripture and the Church’s proclamation.

Finally, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism was a kind of manifesto that brought to bear biblical thought on the social, political, and economic issues of the day. It lead to the recovery of a social conscience that had been lost in the fundamentalist retreat from society. It provided an argument that culture, and cultural engagement that was not culture war mattered deeply.

Thornbury concludes by arguing that our evangelical roots matter. To unthinking shift from these or to live cut off from our roots can be fatal. To re-examine these roots, in this case the roots provided by the work of Carl F. H. Henry, is not necessarily to affirm that these roots are adequate, but rather important and not to be neglected. It strikes me that in growing things, roots continue to grow as well as the plant above ground, and the plant draws nourishment from an growing root system, both new roots and old.

I have to admit that I have not paid attention to Henry in recent years, paying more heed to newer thinkers. Yet this book reminds me of the personal debt I owe him, and those like him. As a young Christian working in the university context, Christianity Today, which in the seventies still reflected Henry’s intellectual influence and heft, was a great encouragement that I could both believe and think, that I could root my thought in a trustworthy and authoritative revelation that provided the foundation to wrestles with the deepest questions being asked in the university world. I could root a commitment to justice and compassion in the care and standards God established for human societies, and the words of the prophets who called a straying people back to such things. Reading Thornbury, I realized that I have often heard but never read Uneasy Conscience. It now sits on my TBR pile. Look for a review.

Review: To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an important book! James Davison Hunter challenges the rhetoric (and hubris) that often comes with the idea of “changing the world” that is embraced by many Christian ministries and movements. He argues first that we often work from inadequate assumptions about the nature of culture change. Secondly, he argues that either in our embrace or rejection of political power, we wrongly attribute too much to this kind of power. Third, he would argue that the proper stance for the church is one of “faithful presence.” These three points are more or less the theses of the three “essays” that comprise this book.

In his first essay, he begins by challenging what he sees as the shared assumption of many movements that “world-change” happens as you change the hearts and minds of individuals through evangelism, political, and social efforts. Related to this is often a version of a “great person” theory of culture change. Hunter argues that this view, based on getting individuals to think better and do better, is mistaken because of an inadequate understanding of culture and culture change, which he articulates in the form of eleven propositions. He would argue that culture is embedded in overlapping institutions of cultural power as much as in ideas and that culture changes as elites within overlapping networks work toward shared ends. Hunter observes that part of the failure of Christians despite some political heft and media presence to effect the changes they hope for in American culture is their absence from these elites. He also looks at the history of Christianity and notes how their influence extended into the culture when they represented the elites of education, the arts, social institutions, as well as politics. William Wilberforce, for example, was not simply an individual reformer but part of a network of politicians, educators, landowners, and industrialists who, together, helped form a social consensus against slavery. He concludes the essay with warnings about hubris as well–change often has unintended consequences.

The second essay explores what Hunter sees as a Christian embrace of the postmodern politicization of power and its reduction of all of public life to politics. One of the things he also notes in this analysis is the phenomenon of ressentiment, the narrative of injury that often drives the postmodern striving for power–whether it is the anger of the decline of values, the inequalities of society, or the disdain of politics. What he then does is apply these insights to a description of efforts of Christians on the political right, left, and the neo-Anabaptists and their apparent disdain for political engagement. Hunter would see all three as participating in the conflation of all public life into political life either by their embrace or disdain of that life. All miss the “something more” that he believes is part of the calling of Christians in the world.

That “something more” which he calls “faithful presence” is what he elaborates in the third essay. He argues on the basis of the incarnation and servant ministry of Jesus that our faithful presence is not one of grasping for power but rather of seeking the shalom of our human society through a full participation in all the dimensions of human life. He contends that Christians often lack an adequate sense of calling to living out their faith in every day life in the world, and that this is what constitutes Christian faithfulness. He also notes the struggle of this, that we participate, and share in imperfect institutions that we might make a bit better through our presence in the way that heralds the coming kingdom.

I call this an important book because it challenges thoughtfully our inadequate assumptions about culture change, it diagnoses our absence in many of the powerful centers of culture, it names what has been wrong with so many of our political engagements, and it proposes an alternative deeply rooted in the person and work and mission of Christ. Some will no doubt contend with his characterization of the Christian Right, Left, or neo-Anabaptism. What I am concerned with is the question of whether “faithful presence” and a de-constructing of the rhetoric of world-change might lead to a vision of making the world just a little better, but discourage the more drastic but sometimes needed efforts like those of a Wilberforce, or a modern day Gary Haugen in fighting human trafficking. Would those committed to “faithful presence” see an outrageous wrong and move beyond what I would call mere presence to active belligerency that engages the overlapping networks to address something that prevents human flourishing? I think that Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence” is probably robust enough to include this, but I wonder how the language would translate into everyday church circles. I suspect it could easily turn into a response that says, “we should not resist evils like this but simply be faithful to the Lord.” Will “faithful presence” be understood in the terms Andre’ Trocme and Le Chambon understood it in hiding Jews escaping Nazi Germany? Or could this simply support the thin, privatized faith that goes along with tyranny?

That said, I think this one of the most important works written about Christian engagement in public life and one that deserves more attention and discussion by all who care about public life and how Christians engage the wider culture.

View all my reviews

I would also call your attention to an earlier post on this book and two review essays I learned of through comments on the post:

To Change the World

Revisiting “To Change the World” by James Davison Hunter, Andy Catsimanes

How (Not) to Change the World, James K.A. Smith