Here’s another excerpt from the semi-mythical book I claim to be working on. This one’s a bit darker than the last one. I currently have it positioned just after a section where I’ve talked about Jesus as the promised king who has come to restore God’s kingdom and pour out the blessings of shalom on God’s people.
Jesus, the promised king, came into the world and brought with him the promises of the kingdom. “Good news,” he proclaimed to anyone who would listen, “God’s shalom, God’s kingdom, is at hand! God has kept his promises, he is restoring his people and his land!”
“That’s great!” you think. And then…you look around you.
A small child lying quietly in the dust. Barely clothed. Bones stretching dry skin to the breaking point. Breathing? Just. No family in sight. No one cares.
Three men crouching in the bushes. Guns in hand. Bloodstained clothing. Explosions everywhere. Hearts racing. Will they make it home? Does anyone still wait for them? Fear.
A young girl running through the darkness. Clothes torn. Desperate. Dark alleys. Closed windows. Will anyone hear? Will anyone see? Is he coming?
College kids partying in an apartment somewhere. Loud music playing. Alcohol almost gone. Sex just getting started. Enough distraction to dull the pain, hide the boredom. Is there anything else? No one knows.
A family at home. TVs, computers, video games, headphones. Separate rooms. No talking. House full of people…and loneliness.
A quiet room. You’re alone. Only your thoughts to keep you company. Those same thoughts. Why won’t they go away? What’s wrong with me? I’m glad no one knows. Hiding.
Blink….Blink….Blink….On and on it goes. The images won’t stop. A mosaic of despair and brokenness.
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). How can that be? That was two thousand years ago. And yet, we look around today and see so much death, so much destruction, so much shoah.
Again, let me know what you think. I’m shamelessly using you as a sounding board whenever I try something new (for me). So, if you don’t think it works, let me know…gently.
I finally got James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker, 2009) off my “to read” shelf and actually read it. The book has a wealth of interesting ideas, so I’m going to spend a little while blogging my way through it.
The basic premise of the book is that modern Christian educational practices are overly rationalistic and intellectual. This in itself is such a common claim these days as to be almost boring. But, the particular way that Smith develops his argument is worth following.
Smith’s argument really rests on two basic propositions: (1) human persons are basically affective beings—that is, we are shaped more by our loves/desires than by our beliefs/ideas; and (2) our loves/desires are in turn shaped more by habit-forming practices than by beliefs/ideas. I don’t think Smith wants to denigrate the importance of beliefs/ideas in any of this, but he does want to argue that they are less central than we like to think. Instead, our lives are driven primarily by our affections, which are in turn shaped primarily by our regular practices. Thus, the book comprises a basically Augustinian approach to educational formation today. But, although the book’s articulated goal is to deepen on our understanding of education, its arguments have broader significance for spiritual formation in general.
He establishes his first point by appealing to the Augustinian notion that our lives are driven primarily by our loves. We all have some vision of the “good” that we love and orient our lives toward. Although this vision has cognitive content, it is the affective power of the vision that causes us to orient our lives around it. So, Smith contends that real Christian formation needs to be more focused on forming people who love the right things than on making people who believe the right things. He does not deny the important connection between loving and believing, but he thinks that modern education has not only gotten them backward but that it often neglects the former entirely.
Smith devotes the majority of the book to establishing and explaining his second point—i.e. that our desires “are shaped and molded by the habit-forming practices in which we participate” (p. 25). To do this, he develops the idea of “cultural liturgies,” or practices that fundamentally shape who we are as people. These practices are liturgical in that they are fundamentally religious (i.e. oriented toward some concept of the good) and pedagogical (i.e. they shape us into the kinds of people who will be oriented toward that good). And, he argues that virtually anything you do on a regular basis can be a “liturgy” in this sense. Consequently, we need to pay much more attention to the formative dimension of such practices.
So, he summarizes his core claim in this way: “The core claim of this book is that liturgies…shape and constitute our identities by forming our most fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world” (p. 25). And, it’s a claim that he thinks should challenge and reshape our modernistic approach to spiritual formation in general and Christian education in particular.
What is interesting about the book is the way in which Smith applies this core claim to several “cultural liturgies” (e.g. shopping at the mall) and how this reveals the power of “ritual” in shaping personal and corporate identity. How he does this should become clearer in subsequent posts.
I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading and thinking lately on the Gospel. That is partly because we have had an intense faculty discussion this year on what it means to be a seminary focused on Gospel-Centered Transformation. In the process, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect deeply on what I think the Gospel is and where I’m dissatisfied with many of the Gospel presentations that I hear. Along the way, I’ve also had the opportunity to read a number of books on the Gospel. So, I thought that now might be a good time to begin a series of reviews on books that are specifically about the Gospel.
I’m going to begin today with a review of Richard Stearns’ The Hole in Our Gospel: What does God expect of us? The answer that changed my life and might just change the world (Thomas Nelson, 2009). Since the book comes with no less that twenty-seven endorsements from people as diverse as Madeleine Albright, Bono, and Eugene Peterson, apparently lots of people liked it. That must mean that I’m in the minority.
If you’re looking for a book that will lay out the full scope of the various humanitarian crises facing the world, as well as the inadequacy of the western church’s response, this book is well worth reading. As president of World Vision, U.S., Stearns is very aware of a wide range of global issues, and he presents these issues in vibrant color with lots of stories. So, on this level, the book is fascinating, engaging, and compelling.
But, the book is fundamentally lacking in at least three ways. The first comes from the book’s prominent claim to be about the Gospel. The central assertion of the book is that there is a hole in our Gospel—i.e. the Gospel as we usually hear it is incomplete. That in itself is not an unusual claim. Lots of people are saying that these days. But, Stearns completely fails to explain what he thinks the Gospel actually is. Lacking more than a cursory statement about the Gospel, we are left without any basis for evaluating his claim that our Gospel is missing something.
Second, when Stearns actually gets around to saying something about the Gospel, it’s often problematic. Take this statement for instance. Trying to explain “The Bible for Dummies,” Stearns claims that the basic message of the Bible is “Love God. Love your neighbor. That’s it” (p. 66). Really? If that’s the essence of the Gospel, we’re all in trouble. Because, of course, we can’t. That’s the whole point. Now, I’m sure Stearns fully recognizes that the Gospel probably should say something about Jesus, but he rarely doe so. Indeed, he says remarkably little in the book about Jesus beyond the example that he set for us in his kingdom preaching. To be fair, he is probably assuming that we know that part of the story and will simply make the connection ourselves. But, if you’re going to claim that this is a book about what’s lacking in other people’s Gospel messages, don’t make the problem worse by leaving a gaping hole in the middle of your own. Without a clear statement on the centrality of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ as providing the only adequate basis and framework for Christian life, the book flirts with becoming a moralistic treatise on the need for Christians to do more.
And, third, what could have been the best part of the book—an emphasis on the Kingdom as essential for understanding the Gospel—falls far short. Stearns sounds almost postmillennial in places:
“his was not intended to be a far-off and distant kingdom to be experienced only in the afterlife; no, Christ’s proclamation of the ‘kingdom of heaven’ was a call for a redeemed world order populated by redeemed people—now” (p. 16).
While I would strongly affirm that the Gospel is transformative and that this transformation involves the creation of a new Kingdom community (the Church) that stands as a witness to Kingdom realities and the coming realization of all God’s purposes, that is a far cry from saying that our task is to produce the Kingdom now through our own efforts.
Stearns is at his best when he’s arguing that a Gospel transformed life should be evidenced now. And he makes it very clear that there are crying needs in the world that need to be addressed by anyone claiming to live a Gospel-transformed life. Indeed, he seems to suggest that the “hole” he has in mind is a tendency to so other-worldly focused that we forget to live out the power of the Gospel in this world (p. 17). That’s fine and important. But, too often his argument becomes a mere call for action without a solid grounding in the Gospel realities that would make that action a meaningful response to the grace of the Gospel.
In short, there is a Gospel-shaped hole in the The Hole in Our Gospel.