Review: Wisdom From Babylon

Wisdom From Babylon: Leadership for the Church in a Secular Age, Gordon T. Smith. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.

Summary: Considers what it means to live in a secular age, different ways of responding as churches, what may learned from sources ancient and modern, and the competencies of church leadership we need.

I grew up thinking that secular was the opposite of Christian and therefore must be bad. Gordon T. Smith, in this work offers a much more nuanced view. He begins by looking at the secular through historic, sociological and philosophical lenses. What he traces is a transition from Christianity as a “public square” faith to a public square that does not privilege any faith, where religious expression is privately allowed but must publicly tolerate all other ideas, and where in fact, we are all have become secular to some greater or lesser extent. How then is a vibrant Christianity which constructively engages its culture to survive? And what kind of leadership is needed within our churches in such a context. It is to this that Smith addresses himself in this work.

He begins with four responses that might be observed:

  1. The “go along to get along” response.
  2. The monastic response.
  3. The culture wars response.
  4. The response of “faithful presence.”

There are things to be said and critiques to be made for each and Smith will argue that each, for its problems, also has elements which might be drawn upon in living in a secular age as a disestablished churched. But first, he considers several sources from which the church may draw wisdom.

The first is the scriptures of exile, from which the book draws its title. Babylon teaches us to remember God’s glory, our identity as his people, and to hope amid lament. He invites us to learn from Ambrose and Augustine, two church fathers writing amid Rome’s decline. These teach us how to engage in the public square, how to form distinctive communities of Christians, and to embrace a trinitarian spirituality. Smith then turns to historic minority churches: how they related to other religions, affirming the uniqueness of Christianity in ways that speak to cultural aspirations. We learn about political witness without privilege, and the ever present reality of suffering for that witness. Then Smith turns to three recent European Christians who engaged European secularity: Bonhoeffer with religionless Christianity, Ellul, who was keenly aware of the discontinuities between the secular order and the kingdom, and Newbigin, who affirmed the church as a powerful sign of the kingdom. We may bemoan the loss of Christendom, but Smith sees fresh opportunity for the gospel in its true and powerful nature to be revealed through the church.

He contends that for this to take place, the church needs to be a liturgical, a catechetical, and missional body and considers what kind of leadership this requires. Liturgical leadership is marked by theological integrity; real encounter with the risen Christ through word, song, and sacrament; hope amid lament; and valuing liturgical art and space. Catechetical leadership embraces the importance of careful instruction of believers in the faith. Missional leadership calls for preaching that speaks to Monday mornings, to political and civic engagement, and peacemaking and conflict resolution. Smith addresses three further tasks of such leadership in the concluding chapters. They must be ecumenical in character, affirming the unity of the whole church rather than fostering divisions. They must be people who cultivate spiritual practices of interiority, leading from within, able to be present to others without distraction. And they must wrap all this in hospitality.

In a time where many seem to be trying to hang on to what they once securely held that seems to be slipping from their grasp, Smith invites us to accept our status as exiles in a secular age. He reminds us of the rich heritage from biblical forebears to recent contemporaries who have recognized the opportunities of exiles. His summaries of their teaching invite us to delve more deeply and listen at their feet and he offers an essential reading list. His prescriptions for leadership have an ancient-future character, mixing liturgy and catechesis with preaching for Monday and for civic engagement–very different from the strategist-celebrity model that has dominated church leadership discussions. What I most appreciated here was the combination of urgency and hope calling upon us both to glimpse the dangers, and to see the possibilities of our secular age.


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: Disruptive Witness

Disruptive Witness

Disruptive WitnessAlan Noble. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2018.

Summary: Drawing on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, Noble explores our longing for fullness in a distracted, secular age of “buffered selves,” and the personal, communal and cultural practices Christians might pursue to disrupt our society’s secular mindset.

When I first came across this title, I was expecting something different, a call to a form of Christian activism, a form of resistance against prevailing destructive and unjust structures. This book both isn’t and is about that. Noble’s analysis looks at deeper causes in the secularism that shapes the warp and woof of our lives.

Drawing on the work of Charles Taylor in A Secular Age, Noble focuses first on the endless distraction of our lives. He illustrates from his own life:

“Sufficient to the workday are the anxieties and frustrations thereof. And so, when I need a coffee or bathroom break, I’ll use my phone to skim an article or “Like” a few posts. The distraction is a much-needed relief from the stress of work, but it also is a distraction. I still can’t hear myself think. And most of the time I really don’t want to. When I feel some guilt about spending so much time being unfocused, I tell myself it’s for my own good. I deserve this break. I need this break. But there’s no break from distraction.”

Such distractions are inimical to Christian witness in making us and those we engage with impervious to the contradictions in our fragmented lives, unable to engage in the extended reflection needed to wrestle with hard questions, and prone to present faith as just one more lifestyle option.

All this feeds into a perspective on self that is “buffered” rather than “porous”–where meaning and our understanding of ultimate reality comes from within rather than is open to the transcendent. Noble observes, “As Christianity has ceased to offer the vision of fullness shared by the vast majority of people in the West, in its place we find billions of micronarratives of fullness.” It is critical for Christians to understand this, both because they need to abandon treating their own faith as a micronarrative and then, in engaging their neighbors, must refuse to treat faith as mere preference.

The second half of Noble’s book explores how we engage in disruptive witness in a distracted world of buffered selves. He explores personal, church, and cultural practices that eventuate in disruptive witness. He begins by commending this double movement:

“This is the movement we need–a double movement in which [1] the goodness of being produces gratitude in us that [2] glorifies and acknowledges a loving, transcendent, good, and beautiful God.” [enumeration added]

For this he commends the simple practices of silence, the saying of grace at meals, and the practice of sabbath, each of which open us to gratitude that acknowledges a transcendent God.

Noble is critical of high-tech, staged worship in which “our focus is directed to the stage rather than to one another.” In place of this, drawing on James K. A. Smith, he calls for the retrieval of liturgical practices that draw us out of ourselves and remind us of the transcendent. He contends that our observance of the Lord’s supper may be one of our most disruptive acts in reminding of the transcendent God who is also immanent, sharing our body and blood, and nourishing us with his in the bread and the cup.

He also advocates culturally disruptive practice, and observes that “intimations of the transcendent” arise in our exercise of human agency, in moral obligations, and aesthetic experiences. As a good English professor, he contends that stories are a place where we may particularly encounter these intimations, offering The Great Gatsby as an example. He concludes by advocating that disruptive witness cannot play by the rules of the secular age, but rather provide a contrast of lives limited around the transcendent that, in Flannery O’Connor’s words, draw “large and startling figures.”

As I concluded the book, I found myself musing as to whether this was “disruptive” enough. In discussing this with a friend, he observed that the re-centering of our lives around a transcendent God not of our own making is pretty disruptive! Moving from distraction to attentive reflection is disruptive. Refocusing worship from an event with high production values to an encounter with the transcendent God is disruptive. Moving from stroking our personal preferences to recognizing goodness for which we are grateful and turning that to an acknowledgement of the transcendent in our daily practices, and in the stories that shape us, is disruptive.

Alan Noble encourages me that disruptive witness isn’t found in how hip, tech-savvy, plugged in, and “relevant” we are, which may be simply Christian versions of a distracted, buffered self. Rather, disruptive witness arises when our lives and cultural engagements are disrupted by the transcendent God in the gospel of his Son. Silence, sabbath, saying grace, participating in liturgy, and the expectation that the transcendent will show up in all of life may seem insignificant, and yet may be the most profound disruptions of all.


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: How to Survive the Apocalypse


How to Survive the ApocalypseRobert Joustra & Alissa Wilkinson. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2016.

Summary: Explores the fascination of the apocalyptic in contemporary film, television, and gaming through the lens of Charles Taylor’s work on secularism and the self.

“The world is going to hell.

Just turn on the television–no, not the news. Flip over to the prestige dramas and sci-fi epics and political dramas. Look at how we entertain ourselves. Undead hordes are stalking and devouring, alien invasions are crippling and enslaving, politicians ignore governance in favor of sex and power, and sentient robots wreak terrible revenge upon us” (p. 1).

With these words, the authors explore the contemporary fascination with apocalyptic that runs through dystopian fiction, film, television, and gaming. Like Andy Crouch, who wrote the Foreward to this book, I have spent far less time than these writers (almost none at all, truthfully) with the media they explore in this work, although I am aware of the contemporary fascination with this. I picked it up because I was interested in why the fascination.

For the authors, the work of Charles Taylor, and particularly The Secular Age shape their analysis of contemporary apocalyptic. They note that there has always been apocalyptic literature, but that the character of that literature exposes the character of the age and the concerns that age arouses in us. For them, Taylor’s understanding of how secularity has shaped the self makes sense of the themes of the apocalyptic in our own age. We see it in our quest as “buffered selves” for authenticity; how we are shaped, in the midst of of an impersonal order, through relations with others; and how any kind of hope for survival of the apocalypse involves addressing the “malaises of modernity”:  radical individualism, instrumentalism, in which our lives are incorporated into the efficient functioning of society, and the infinity of personal choices that leads to a paralysis that can end up in the surrender of freedom to tyranny.

These themes are surveyed through a tour of apocalyptic film and television. Beginning with Battlestar Galactica, the authors explore the efforts of characters (and Cylons) to self-define and self-actualize. We discover in works as disparate as The Hunger Games and Her (a series involving romantic relationship with an operating system) how authenticity and self-definition can occur only in relational and social contexts.

We consider the dark side of the quest for authenticity when the “horizon of choice” turns to power in series like House of Cards, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. In each, we see that the anti-hero’s quest for significance through power is a delusion that ends up rendering the anti-hero powerless. We see these themes writ large in the political order of Westeros in Game of Thrones.  Joustra and Wilkinson conclude, “It is the pathological forms of authenticity, anthropocentrism, and instrumentalism that will feel winter’s coldest chill. That an apocalypse is coming is proof that hidden meaning remains to be unveiled…” (p. 135).

To survive “the apocalypse” we must confront the realities behind The Night of the Living Dead” and World War Z,  that exposes the reality that there is no such think as “naked self-interest.” Given the pluralism of our society, there are a multitude of a “self-interests” for people and institutions, some pathological, and some because they are rooted in an understanding of who we are, what people are for, and where we are going, are better.

Apocalypses are about “the end.” But they also point us to “ends” beyond the end, to ways of living that anticipate what is beyond apocalypse, whether in the end we avoid it or not. The danger is nostalgia, an attempt to turn back the clock. Yet the secular age, with its radical pluralism is upon us. Better than retreats into nostalgia or personal “sheltering in place” is a posture of seeking to be architects who seek contribute to social institutions for better, seeking to shape rather than merely being shaped. The writers propose that this is always a “proximate” effort. Seeking the prosperity of Babylon will not bring in the New Jerusalem. It is always at best pursuing common cause with constructive disagreement.

It was this last that I especially appreciated. Instead of naive idealism, stark, power-hungry realism, or a disaffected retreat, the authors point us, and particularly Christians who care about society, toward a posture of being salt in society, preserving and perhaps enhancing, and in the process, enabling us to survive with our souls should apocalypse come. The authors, unpacking Taylor’s massive work and connecting it to popular media, serve us well in helping us understand our present times, the end that apocalypse represents, and the ends we might pursue as we allow the possible future to shape our present.

The Month in Reviews: October 2014

As the days shortened and the nights grew chillier, my reading this month tended toward the weightier, with wonderful respites of George MacDonald fantasy and Civil War fictional history and the first installment of Morris’s Teddy Roosevelt biography. At the same time, I explored the question of secularity as a definition of reality, freedom of conscience, a theology of the Holy Spirit and an intellectual and social history of the religious right. Here’s the list of books from the past month:

1. Is Reality Secular?, Mary Poplin. Poplin challenges the secularist assumptions that govern, as she sees it, public discourse and explores four different worldviews and their take on reality.

2. Earthquake StormsJohn Dvorak. Dvorak gives us a combination of history, biography and science in a fascinating account of the history of the San Andreas fault.

realityearthquakesrise3. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Edmund Morris. This is the first of a three volume biography on the life of Teddy Roosevelt, tracing his adventures from sickly childhood through young rancher, civil servant to the fateful day he learns he has become President at the death of McKinley.

4. Meditation and Communion with God, John Jefferson Davis. Davis seeks to articulate an evangelical theology of spiritual formation and relationship with God.

5. The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald. This classic fantasy explores themes of evil and courage and faith in the intersection between the goblins, Princess Irene, Curdie, her “great grandmother” and the King.

public squareGoblinmeditation

6. The Global Public Square, Os Guinness.  This book argues that a public square safe for diversity is one that protects freedom of conscience for all.

7. Spirit of Life, Jurgen Moltmann. Moltmann’s theology of the Holy Spirit. The title is important, as this book is an exploration of the Spirit’s role in our embodied existence.

8. A Blaze of Glory, Jeff Shaara. This is Shaara’s slightly fictionalized account of the Battle of Shiloh and explores what a near run thing this was to a Confederate victory.

spirit of lifeblazegendercidetheocracy

9. The Cross and Gendercide, Elizabeth Gerhardt. This book breaks new ground in giving a theological basis in the cross of Christ for Christian advocacy and resistance against violence toward women and girls.

10. Blueprint for Theocracy, James C. Sanford. A carefully researched study of the theology behind the Christian Right and actions resulting from this theology, marred, I thought, by its scare-mongering tone.

What will I be reading and reviewing in the coming weeks? I’m in the midst of the second volume of the Teddy Roosevelt biography, covering his presidential years, a book on the life of the apostle Paul, an exploration of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and a book on modern literature and the question of belief. Soon, I will be picking up the next installment in Jeff Shaara’s western battles of the Civil War series, which focuses on Vicksburg. I also am planning to read the sequel to The Princess and the Goblin, titled The Princess and Curdie.

What will you be reading in November?



Everything Matters

Rich, in his concluding message in the series on “The Christian and…” this past Sunday began the sermon with the assertion that everything we do as Christians matters and ended with the question, “does my life matter or not?” My immediate response to this is “of course!” And it makes me wonder why we have spent a whole summer considering as a church how all of life matters and how becoming more like Christ relates to every aspect of our lives. It seems to me that this should be as plain as the nose on my face.

Except that it isn’t.

Why is that? I think there are two reasons. The first is one basic to our nature as fallen creatures whose ingrained habit of living is to close God out of our lives except when we are really desperate. There is a part of me that resists God’s gracious overtures to make sense out of my life and to fashion me into a “little Christ” who is at the same time the unique person God intends me to be. Sometimes, the visceral response to these overtures is one of “sez who?” or maybe slightly more politely, “I can do it myself”. Sometimes I even pursue the really mixed up strategy of trying to meet the radical demands of following Jesus without his radical help. Call it being the male macho cowboy or whatever you will, I keep wanting to limit the places I let Jesus  into when he in fact is saying, “it all matters to me”. Too often, I only realize this only when I royally screw up!

The other reason is an external one. The “water we swim in” is a society that has made sharp divisions between public and private, secular and sacred that confines the expression of our faith to the private parts of life. Have you noticed how some recent public discourse no longer talks about freedom of religion but “freedom of worship?” There is a subtle message in this that says, “you may practice your faith in the privacy of your home, your car, and your church, but don’t let it intrude into any part of public life.”

In the university setting where I work, I sometimes ask graduate students if they ever stop to pray when confronted with a tough research problem or give thanks when they have a breakthrough. Do they pray about a seminar in which they will present, or for students as they grade their papers or prepare for office hours? Sometimes, I’m confronted by a blank stare that says, “I never thought of this before.” I suspect at least part of this is that we are all tempted to “go into secular mode” when we arrive at work.

Rich’s “principles and practices” seemed to me to offer helpful ways to lives as someone for whom everything matters that deal both with my resistance to following Jesus and with the false dichotomy between sacred and secular in our society. He challenged us to the principles of an integrity where the private and public part of our lives are consistent with each other, to be wise in recognizing that Christ does not call us to a life that defies the capacities and competencies he has given us, to allow Christ rather than the cultures of family, workplace, community or even church to shape us, and to rely on the resources of God in scripture, Spirit, and Christian community to live Christ-shaped lives. And he challenged us to the practices of examining our use of our time and claiming it for what matters, to creating routines that sustain us, to being defined in relationship to Christ rather than giving our identities to persons or forces like our jobs to shape us, and to live attentively.

This last one has seemed particularly important to me. Dallas Willard often advised those who sought his advice on living well to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry” from their lives. Hurry seems to me to be what keeps me from living attentively to both my insides and my external circumstances and the life Jesus is inviting me into in all of life. When I am hurrying through my life, I stop asking questions like “is this something that really matters to Jesus, something he wants me to do?”, “how does this matter to Jesus?”, “how might I act as someone whose life and character matters to Jesus?”

Reality for followers of Jesus is that our lives and everything we do in our bodies in this life matter deeply to him. It seems that it all comes down to whether we will live in the shadow worlds of secularity and human rebellion or the bright and good reality of Jesus where everything in our lives matters.

This blog is also posted at Going Deeper, a blog reflecting on messages at our church each week.