“I believe that it is expected of the Church and its theology—a world within the world no less than chemistry or the theatre—that it should keep precisely to the rhythm of its own relevant concerns, and thus consider well what are the real needs of the day by which its own programme should be directed. I have found by experience that in the last resort the man in the street who is so highly respected by many ecclesiastics and theologians will really take notice of us when we do not worry about what he expects of us but do what we are charged to do.”—Karl Barth, The Doctrine of the Word of God 1.i, in Church Dogmatics, xvi
Let me say at the outset that I started hating this book around page 21 when the author added the word ‘the’ before the word ‘faith.’ I hastily scribbled in the margin, “No! The faith doesn’t change. There is only one faith once delivered. That doesn’t change even if the context in which it is lived out does.” I still wish the author had written that sentence a little differently because it took me the rest of the book to fully appreciate and understand what he had written and why he had written it that way. I sort of regretted getting hung up on the word ‘the’; it seems such a silly thing to stumble upon.
But maybe the faith does change. It would have been all too easy to get hung up on a mere article and let it ruin a wonderful journey just like so many Christians get hung up on small things and thus find their entire journey ruined also. Life and faith have so much to offer: so much joy, so much adventure and thrill—I’m reminded of Bilbo Baggins who thought it a wonderful adventure to just step outside the front door. It’s easy to miss the faith when we are busy pretending we are defending something important like the faith. We Christians are very, very good at getting stuck at ‘the.’
I persevered—determined not to get stuck at ‘the.’ I am so glad I did because as I did I met up with some familiar friends. It is very, very difficult for me to argue or disagree with an author who quotes from the authors that I, too, enjoy: NT Wright, Eugene Peterson, TS Eliot, Stanley Hauerwas, Brennan Manning, and William Willimon—they all made it into the book. And there are more, plenty more. I love these authors because they are the very authors, the very Christians, who have been shaping my own faith for a long time. Seeing these authors’ ideas in Lyons’ book was encouraging to me because it meant that he is a reader and that his own faith was being shaped by the same people who have been shaping my faith. I started realizing what Lyons was getting at when I started to hear myself: these are the same things I had been saying to my congregation when I was still preaching every Sunday.
The gist of Lyons’ argument is that by and large we have missed the point of the faith. In being cultural separatists or cultural adoptionists we have failed the mandates of the faith. We haven’t offered a better way forward when we determine to take up residence in either of those categories: “If we fail to offer a different way forward, we risk losing entire generations to apathy and cynicism” (11). Lyons is offering a better way forward in his book by drawing on the wisdom of others who have made a similar call, preachers like Eugene Peterson, Chuck Colson, John Stott, and Tim Keller. Our faith ought to change us and ought to change the world. And if it is not, then we might ask whether or not there is a ‘the’ in front of the word faith in any case.
I think some readers might have problems with some of the anecdotes found in the book. I don’t think that holding up Christopher Hitchens’ criticism of Jerry Falwell to make a point, however right the point may be, will resonate with the people who need to read this book (14-15) any more than I think holding up a lesbian high school student as a positive example of a change agent will (21-22; c.f., 114-115). I don’t think that the Christians who need to read this book will take joy in his example of a person who sought spiritual substance in Mormonism (173), regardless of how much they too detest the pizza party culture of some churches, any more than they will take joy in his example of spiritual devotion of Muslims who pray when it is time to pray (179). Is it commitment and devotion when it is commitment and devotion to something that is not true or is it absurdity? Do atheists, lesbians, Mormons and Muslims put Christians to shame? It’s an intriguing question that begs a further question: are there no examples of such people in the church he could hold up for his readers?
I just don’t know that Christians need examples of how pagans put us to shame; we do well enough on our own with our lack of such devotion.
Another problem with the book is, frankly, that Lyons lives in a world few of us can fully appreciate. It may seem a trivial thing to suggest that his anecdotes are otherworldly, but the world in which Lyons lives in not the same world most of us live in daily. His anecdotes of meeting with Hollywood bigwigs, friends who work and live in Beverly Hills, magazine publishers, CEO’s of investment companies, high profile fashion models, or people who work with money that has more zero’s than my name has letters is, well, way too out of touch for most of us. Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad those are his friends and that he rubs shoulders with important people, but sometimes it just comes off as if: Hey! Look at me!
Lyons states on page 126, “I’m not suggesting that every person’s calling is to start a nonprofit organization to address a huge global problem. For you, it probably doesn’t mean leaving your job or career at all. It simply means restoring right where you are.” And I couldn’t agree more. The only problem is that there is a dearth of examples of those of us who are the ‘you’ represented in his story. I would have preferred more stories about those every day Harrys and Marys who are being encouraged to do just what he says. Yet page after page is filled with stories of people that most of us cannot in any way relate to. It puts a huge distance between author and reader–not just in the people’s stories he tells, but in other ways as well.
For example, consider his criticism found on page 97 where he talks about the way we decorate our houses. Lyons is talking about creating culture—a brilliant idea and one that Christians do not talk about nearly enough. But then the conversation drifts to the type of wood that our furniture is made of: “Does the china cabinet in your house tell a story of craftsmanship and beauty or of speed and mass production? If it’s coated in a ‘faux-wood’ veneer, it tells the story of the latter.” Here I disagree. I think if my house contains furniture made of ‘faux-wood’ it tells the story of what I have chosen to own. It says, “Here’s a person who doesn’t need to spend money on real wood furniture to be happy.” Or it says, “Here’s a person who has bought something he can afford, something utilitarian, something his children can break and not feel guilty for.” Or it says, “Here’s a person who constantly has a house full of his sons’ friends and finds it is far more convenient to own a veneer than furniture that can be easily scratched and devalued.”
It is a silly argument he puts forward. It is, in a word, pretentious. What if I don’t even had a china cabinet? The type of furniture in my house has nothing to do whatsoever with the depth of my devotion to Christ. Then again, I’m probably defeating his point which is that we should be creators and not critics. Or maybe he is. I mean, I might have to leave my job and get a new job if I’m going to have to create culture by buying really expensive, real wood furniture. Or I can keep feeding the 20 neighborhood kids that stroll in and out of my house on a weekly basis because I have faux-wood furniture instead. I suppose it is a matter of who Lyons’ readers are, but when he tells stories about my furniture or his friends who host house parties in Hollywood Hills (147ff), I feel like I am not the intended reader. I get the point: these are Lyons’ friends and his experiences. Fine. It doesn’t fix the disconnect.
Nevertheless, Lyons struck a nerve with me and picked at a scab that has been bugging me ever since I was fired from a church I had served for nearly ten years. I have struggled mightily with God and wrestled with the Lord by my own Jabbok for nearly two years trying to understand how I could serve Him outside the pulpit—the very place I believe, even now, I was called to serve. Yet when Lyons told the story of his son’s Down syndrome (105-108), I was moved deeply, not in mere emotion, but with an energy and determination to press on in my new calling (Special Education). And when he told the story of how some pastors are deliberately moving into urban centers and ‘incarnating Christ’s love at the heart of culture’ (201), I was motivated to work harder to finish my career change—which has already taken me away from a formal pulpit—and get on with the work I now believe I have been called to do (to eventually move into such an urban center).
Truth is, this book was very personal because I continue to see, in book after book, God’s affirmation and confirmation, that there is service in His Kingdom apart from a pulpit on Sunday mornings. Lyons wrote, in what might be the best couple of sentences in the entire book: “[The next Christians] have finally recovered what many who have gone before them always understood about the faith: namely, that the Christian view of the world informs everything, that the Gospel runs deep, and that the way of Jesus demands we give our lives in service to others. Jesus’s atonement was not only meant to be a simple ticket to heaven—it carried consequence for how Christians live their lives on earth today” (201). I have heard this before, read it before, preached it before—and Lyons is right, not because I believe him, but because he believes Jesus. Too many Christians live like all that matters is thing we were told not to worry about: “Why do you stand here looking at the sky?” the angel asked (Acts 1:11). In other words, “Get your head out of the clouds, get back to Jerusalem, and get ready to be empowered to be Jesus to the world.”
And thus we come back to Karl Barth, writing nearly 80 years ago, who said that if we are to take ourselves seriously as the church, then we need to be doing the things we are supposed to be doing, the things we are charged to do by Jesus himself: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me….Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind…and Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:21; 22:37, 39).
Where has Jesus called us to love right now? Who has he called me to love right here? How has he called me to love those who are in the places where I find myself each day? In what way has the Gospel informed my life? How deep does the Gospel run in my life? How am I serving others?
I’m really glad I got past ‘the.’