Review: Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Rules

Breaking the Rules, Fil Anderson (foreward by Brennan Manning). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010.

Summary: Anderson traces his own spiritual journey of moving from rules- and performance-based religion to an intimate relationship with God where he was unafraid of revealing his true self.

It’s an occupational hazard of those who take their faith seriously, especially among those of us engaged in Christian ministry. We turn what is meant to be the deepest, most profound relationship in life, into a list of rules and performance metrics. That was the trap Fil Anderson, a former youth worker, found himself in until he discovered that real Christian faith was coming with his true, broken but beloved self to Christ, learning to be vulnerable with others, and to give up measuring his worth by how well he kept the rules and how successful he was as a performer.

Anderson takes us through a series of reflections on his own journey and the different facets of moving from rule-based religion to intimate relationship with Christ. So much of it has to do with what he discusses in an early chapter of laying aside our preconceptions about Jesus and the ways we make him captive to our religious practice to discover him in his unexpected actions in unpredictable places. When we come to Christ in our brokenness, he shines his light through the broken places. We often live fearfully trying to maintain an image that gains approval rather than fully, bravely, and beautifully, allowing Christ to express himself through our personalities. And our relentless quest for religious purity blinds us to a Christ who offers us and others grace for our brokenness and exchanges our drivenness for joy. Giving up on keeping all the rules for this gracious relationship leads us to a life of “doing what we can” rather than the hubris of trying to change the world.

Toward the end of the book, he discusses the wedding of Cana and explores the question of why Jesus uses the vessels for ceremonial cleansing to transform their water to wine. His insight, I think, captures the essence of the book:

“. . . I’m convinced that it was another crucial and illuminative sign. By means of Jesus first miracle, he intentionally desecrates a highly valued religious symbol. He strategically and purposefully chooses these sacred symbols to confront the religious system by converting them from symbols of personal purification into symbols of relational and gracious celebration. Jesus turns the tables and shifts the values from holy water to wedding wine. From legalism to living. From empty religion to deep and full relationship.”

One detects in the book the influences of Brennan Manning, the author of The Ragamuffin Gospel, and Mike Yaconelli, of whom he writes movingly, and who seemed particularly instrumental in penetrating the religious persona he was so determined to project.

I think people at several places might find Anderson’s account helpful. The person who is just fed up with religion and yet longs for God seems to be particularly the person for whom this book is written. The person who has been diligently faithful, and perhaps detects in oneself that the Christian faith has become more about performance than love, and is uneasy with who they are becoming could find great help here. One of Anderson’s best chapters is his one on “throwing in the towel on religion” and many will resonate with what he says here.

I’ve watched people live performance-driven and rule-based religious lives and the outcome isn’t pretty. It is either to become critical and judging, or to end one’s life in bitter disillusionment when all the attempts to erect “glittering images” (to use Susan Howatch’s term that Anderson invokes) come crashing down. Those of us who are most “serious” about our faith perhaps have a greater need for such a narrative, that we might take ourselves more lightly as we bask in the knowledge that we are loved by the God who sees us in all our brokenness and calls us “beloved.”


Why Do We Do This to Each Other?

Freitas“Sexual freedom” is not a new thing on university campuses. At least since the 1960s and likely before, campuses were hardly celibate enclaves. What is a newer development is the “hookup” culture. Donna Freitas has been chronicling this first in Sex and the Soul and now in The End of Sex: How Hookup Culture is Leaving a Generation Unhappy, Sexually Unfulfilled, and Confused About IntimacyI’m currently reading the latter book. Working on a campus, I’m well aware of most of what she writes, but I still find her narrative extremely disturbing.

Two chapters in the middle of the book have been especially so, because of the misbegotten ways women and men are trying to conform to their perception of social expectations. She chronicles how women are accessing the internet porn men watch in order to present themselves in the ways they think men want them–basically as whores who exist to satisfy male sexual whims. By the same token, interviews with men reveal many are deeply ambivalent about “hookup” culture, doing “it” often as much to impress other men as out of any real sexual desire.

Freitas contends that in this hyper-pressurized world of social expectations, neither sex is able to connect these experiences with sexual desire or intimacy. It’s all about not feeling (which accounts for the role alcohol plays in this culture). The thing I wonder is why so many surrender their real longings and identity to satisfying what they think are the perceptions of others? I can understand this in high school, but why has this become such a powerful force at the university level? Is it the ubiquitous character of social media in which people tweet and post about their experiences and about others?

The serious business of this has to do with safety–physical and emotional. When not feeling and not communicating (which are the primary “rules” of hook up sex) govern relationships, where is the line between consent and rape? Where is protection from sexually transmitted diseases? And where is the protection of the heart, when so often one person really does want more from this? Campus campaigns for “safe sex” and “no means no” go out the window in this climate.

There is the hope that in reflective moments students might ask “why do I put myself and others at risk for what, in my most honest moments, isn’t actually that pleasurable?” An even deeper question is “what kind of person do I want to be and are my sexual choices consistent with that kind of person?” An even harder question is “what do I do when I fail to live up to my moral aspirations?” Of course, the challenge is unplugging from the steady stream of input from our smartphones, computers, and, oh yes, classes, long enough to engage in that kind of reflection.

What are your thoughts about campus hook up culture? Is the picture as negative as Freitas paints it? And how do we understand what drives it?