Reshaping Our Life Together: A Review of Sharon Astyk’s “Making Home”

This review originally appeared in the Ordinary Time 2012 print issue of The Englewood Review of Books.
Reprinted here with permission.  CLICK HERE for subscription info.

 

Take a moment to think about your life in the next 5, 10, 25 years. What do you see? If your vision includes a car, reliable and cheap electricity, food from a supermarket, or a climate-controlled house, you may be in for a rude awakening. In Making Home: Adapting Our Homes and Our Lives to Settle in Place, Shannon Astyk invites us to practice a new way of life that we both need and will inevitably be forced to acquire. She calls this new way of life “adapting in place” and bluntly describes it as “the only thing left that can save the world.” While her vision of the future is bleak and a bit frightening, she is nonetheless hopeful that another world is possible. She sets out to provide the tools and strategies that will give birth to this new world wherever we are – city, country, or suburb.

Before instructing us to compost our solid waste, give up our cars, and heat our beds with warm stones, Astyk uses the first three chapters to reveal the stark realities ahead as we face the consequences of living as if our homes were gods. Homes were meant to serve their inhabitants, but we have made them idols. Our worship is costly because it requires us to transcend the natural limitations of land, family, climate, and culture. Instead of ordering our lives around these limitations, we invest in cheap energy to power short-sighted, destructive solutions. The return on our investment: a lifestyle that is absolutely unsustainable for the 7 billion co-inhabitants of our planet. The god we have created has now become an economic and ecologic monster that threatens to consume our lives and those of several generations to come. Some – those who refuse to acknowledge the frequent failures in our complex systems – have chosen to ignore the monster’s presence. Others – driven by a conception of beauty that rejects utility for shallow appearances and hides the realities of messy, everyday life – choose to continue in their adoration, even as they are consumed. Where does this leave us? Collapse. We have passed a point of no return. Irreparable damage has been done and the storm clouds are brewing in our not-so-distant future.

How does Astyk respond to this bleak reality? She urges us to redefine home to be “an attachment to one place, one house, one set of people, one relationship between [ourselves] and a bit of dirt” that asks us to thrive with less of everything. This sacrifice is necessary if we hope to pass on a life worth living. She recommends that we assume failure and live in ways that serve our needs in and out of crises. These new ways of living should both lessen the impact of the coming collapse and build up our resilience against it. Finally, she encourages us to see beauty in old things made new, in dead things come back to life, and in the ugly, drab tools that actually help meet our real needs. She asks us to put down our Better Homes and Gardens and to fall in love with a “working home” – one that works for us. Bringing this vision of a “working home” to life will require us to come together as communities to think creatively about how we can say no to more energy, money, and resources and yes to more time with our families and more health, happiness, and resilience for all.

Over the course of the next 11 chapters, Astyk systematically deconstructs the “fossil-fueled, private solutions” that fulfill our basic needs and offers very practical strategies to help us “adapt in place.” She begins with triage: should we find a new place or just stay put? If we need to find a new place, Astyk helps us decide by offering a vision of how life in the country, city, and suburbs will be transformed in wake of collapse. From there, she marches through a litany of changes we will need to consider that address every aspect of our modern lives: heating, cooling, lighting, cooking, sanitation, transportation, and food and water production. As a general rule, if a system relies on cheap fossil fuel, it has no future.

Astyk cherishes no illusions about the difficulty of these changes, especially in our relationships. As a now married and formerly divorced mother of several kids, she knows the challenges of family life and gives strategies for navigating these changes with spouses and partners who may not be on board. She provides thoughtful advice on how to include your children even when they can’t or don’t really want to help. Since a working home incorporates extended family, Astyk critiques our somewhat ridiculous need for privacy and space (the average American is given 850 sq. ft. of personal space) and asks us to embrace a communal future with a broad and inclusive definition of extended family. She offers very practical tips to help us prepare our homes to be hospitable during short-term crises and suggests a renewed focus on caretaking, especially with our aging family members. Expanding into the sphere of neighborhood and community relationships, she echoes a well-known Biblical command: Love your neighbor. The alternative is simple: die.

Finally, Astyk shares her thoughts on issues of work and money and asks us to broaden our skills and learn to do things for ourselves. She even provides a list of seven skills that every adult will need. She emphasizes the coming importance of the informal economy, made up of “subsistence work, criminal acts, barter, under the table work, domestic economics, and self-employment in the cottage industry,” and suggests that we will need to be very flexible in how we define “jobs” or “careers.” With government services either failing or becoming unreliable in most places, those who adapt in place need to think about their personal and collective security. Astyk lists several ways individuals and communities can prevent violence but also ways to respond to violence if necessary.

As the book comes to a close, the idea of “making home” may will seem overwhelming, but Astyk ends with a message of hope. She and her husband were not experts in “making home” when they began this project 10 years ago, but they have made significant progress. In between some chapters, she helps to assuage our fears by inserting personal anecdotes from several folks who are making the kinds of changes she has suggested. Astyk is adamant that her goal is not to provide a rigid list of do’s and don’ts that are required for adapting in place. Rather, she insists that this book is a way for us to get started, a way to get our minds thinking differently, and a guide that may need some tinkering along the way.

As a follower of Jesus Christ, Astyk’s analysis of the crises I and my family now face and her vision for adapting in place struck me in several ways. First, I was deeply challenged to move beyond the empty lip-service I pay to my belief in the goodness of creation. Simply put: I say creation is good, but I live comfortably in ways that destroy it. Second, my understanding of the depth and reach of sin in our world was challenged by Astyk’s embrace of failure as the human condition. As it turns out, the seemingly “good” things I enjoy are actually very sinful when their human and environmental costs are rightly assessed. A robust understanding of sin must include the destructive effects of our lifestyles. A final challenge came to my belief in what has been called a “theology of enough.” Too often, I embrace the hope of this belief – creation’s abundance and God’s generosity – without accepting its command: take only what you need (Exodus 16:16-18). Thankfully, several affirmations came along with these challenges. Chief among them was how Astyk’s primary thesis of “making home” gives serious teeth to the Church’s call to practice hospitality. Since, as Christine Pohl says in her book Making Room, “the front door of the home is the side door of the church,” we would be wise to heed Astyk’s advice in transforming our homes if we desire a more hospitable world for all. While she does not claim to offer an exhaustive solution, she provides more than enough to spark further conversation.

I enjoyed reading this book and would recommend it to any individual or family in search of practical, down-to-earth advice about how to live in ways that honor creation, use a fair share of resources, and lead to stronger, more resilient families. While the changes she recommends are drastic, Astyk is very reasonable and humble in her guidance. She mostly assumes that her readers are very familiar with the concept of peak-oil, as well as the pace and consequences of climate change. If these are not familiar ideas, I would recommend some light research (use Wikipedia… while you still can) before reading. In conclusion, this book serves as a wonderful catalyst in an extremely important conversation about the reshaping of our life together in order to serve and protect the web of diverse, interdependent relationships that bind us to one another and our planet in ways more intimate than we sometimes like to admit.

A Review of Elaine Heath’s “The Mystic Way of Evangelism”

In The Mystic Way of Evangelism, Elaine Heath draws from the vast wealth of Christian mysticism to reimagine the present and future for the church and its evangelistic mission in the U.S. Her vision is not merely based on the mystical sources; it uses the threefold mystical path of purgation, illumination, and union as the lenses through which to view the church’s vocation. Before laying out this mystical vision of evangelism, Heath provides a helpful definition of key terms. She defines evangelism as a local faith community’s practice of initiating people into God’s reign that ends only when those people are fully incorporated in and active with that faith community. For Heath, holiness is at the heart of the mystical tradition and central to her mystical way of evangelism. Holiness is being set apart to be in partnership with God in God’s mission. Therefore, mysticism is not a way of escape from the world through private, spiritual experience but a way of being holy that is concerned with bringing wholeness and healing to persons who then increasingly pursue the love of God and neighbor.

According to Heath, the U.S. church has already entered the first step in the mystical journey – purgation. She bases this conclusion on a series of dismal statistics about falling church membership and participation along with a loss of authority in the lives of individuals and communities. The church’s days of power and influence as an institution are over; this includes both mainline and evangelical denominations. However, instead of fighting this decline, Heath calls the church to a posture of surrender which acknowledges God’s faithful, yet hidden presence in the church’s struggles and suffering. As the church surrenders, God is working to free it from its deeply held idolatrous views of God as a being it can control as well as its accommodation to the consumerist and individualist ways of the world. God longs to restore the church, but this time of exile is necessary for its holy transformation.

In order to emerge from this “dark night of the soul,” Heath unearths and integrates the work of ten Christian mystics both ancient and modern over the course of five chapters to “illuminate” five central, theological themes the church must consider as it pursues a renewed way of being holy. Julian of Norwich and Hans Urs von Balthasar reveal love as the essence of God’s meaning. Phoebe Palmer and Father Arseny embody a life of kenosis – self-emptying – lived for the sake of others. Thomas R. Kelly and Henri Nouwen mark the journey through the false self into the true self at home in God’s love. Julia Foote and Methchild of Magdeburg expose the church’s great need for healing from its threefold wound of racism, sexism, and classism. Finally, St. Bonaventure and John Woolman cast a vision of ecological redemption that grounds the practice of evangelism in the stewardship and care of creation.

In the five remaining chapters, Heath explores how the practice of evangelism will be transformed if and when the church takes the step past illumination into union. Since love is God’s meaning, evangelism becomes a way of serving and loving Christ in the persons we meet. The life of kenosis highlights how radical self-giving beyond the typical financial tithe leads to new, more light-weight yet more costly ways of doing church which are vital to the work of evangelism. For Christians to be truly hospitable towards those they evangelize, the practice of evangelism must be grounded in a life of contemplative prayer that facilitates personal healing and wholeness. Evangelism that takes the threefold wound of racism, sexism, and classism seriously calls for egalitarian church leadership structures, intentional church plants in poor neighborhoods, and ministries devoted to violence prevention and recovery. Finally, the mystical way of evangelism must include multi-dimensional efforts to steward the evangelistic witness of creation by confronting consumerism and teaching simplicity and sustainability as core values.

In this work, Heath has masterfully developed a thorough, compelling, and holistic vision of evangelism in a mystical key for the church today. Her command of the ten mystical sources she uses in the “illumination” section is impressive and her ability to synthesize the works of two sources – sometimes across vast distances in history and culture – shows great skill and creativity. While every chapter in this section is a gem, I want to make special note of Heath’s chapter on Hans Urs von Balthasar and Julian of Norwich which lays the foundation for the rest of the section. This chapter illuminates God’s being as pure love in a unique, provocative way. When God’s being as love is discussed in typical fashion, one usually finds a discussion on God’s being as Trinity, as a perfect communion of equal, mutually self-giving and other-receiving love. Heath avoids this typical Trinitarian discussion and focuses instead on how God’s being as love shapes our view of eschatology via Hans Urs von Baltahasar and sin via Julian of Norwich. This move is important not because it “skips over” Trinitarian theology but because it extends Trinitarian theology in a way that entirely subverts the project of evangelism that has dominated the Protestant church in America for decades which has been characteristically a-Trinitarian. With von Balthasar’s hopeful, inclusive eschatology, evangelism is freed from its tendency to devolve into manipulative fear tactics. With Julian’s definition of sin as “original wound,” evangelists can address the actual pain and violence of sin endured by those who live apart from the loving God instead of abstracting sin to an otherworldly realm of divine transactions. Upon finishing this chapter, I felt excited about evangelism for the first time – and I was raised in a Southern Baptist church! Evangelism is no longer about convincing someone to feel bad about their sin to save themselves from a god of wrath; it is an introduction to the God who exists as love and is moving all creation towards a hopeful future where all its wounds are healed.

In the third and final section, Heath looks for ways the church’s practice of evangelism will need to change as it seeks a “union” of holiness with God. Unfortunately, this section seemed very repetitive and Heath’s goals for it were unclear to me. At first I thought she was “applying” the “theory” she had developed in section two. In most of the “union” chapters, she does focus on practical applications and changes to be made, but she had already discussed many of these changes in the “illumination” chapters. The chapters in this section also included short vignettes which follow the life of a man named Sam who encounters a church which practices a mystic way of evangelism. These vignettes attempt to communicate the truth of each chapter in a narrative format. However, I found these stories added little to what had already been said in each chapter. The stories were too brief and underdeveloped to say anything new. This added to the sense of repetitiveness I found throughout this section.

One redeeming feature of the “union” section was Heath’s discussion of a “new kind of Pentecostalism” in chapter ten. As a member of a charismatic church, I appreciated how Heath reformulated the Pentecostal doctrine of “initial evidence” from a performance which somehow proves an individual’s holiness to a life committed to the creation of communities which have been divided by race, class, and gender. The “evidence” of the Spirit’s work is renewed life in community, i.e. the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” which the apostle Paul writes about in 2 Corinthians 13:14. Evangelism that is Spirit-filled will invite others into a renewed and renewing community which embodies the new creation reconciliation Christ has made possible.

I would recommend this book to all Christian leaders who are concerned about the future of the church in the U.S. Heath has provided a refreshing and hopeful way forward that does not ignore the church’s issues but nevertheless trusts in God’s active presence to renew and restore God’s people. This book would be especially helpful for church planters who are forming their vision for the community God has called them to cultivate. They may find Heath’s stories about “Sam’s” experience with the mystic way of evangelism more helpful than I since they paint an explicit image of how her process could work. This book may also be helpful for the typical church member to help them deepen their understanding of evangelism. However, the second section may be too theologically in-depth for some general audience readers. On the whole, I give this book a very hearty recommendation because it has given me new hope and excitement about how evangelism can be practiced in truly life-giving ways for both our churches and our communities.

Be Afraid of Your Ghosts: A Review of Adam Hochschild’s “King Leopold’s Ghost”

king leopold's ghostIn King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild tells the haunting story of how a massive piece of African land and tens of millions of indigenous African lives became the sole property of a single, power-hungry man – King Leopold II of Belgium – who implemented brutal systems of forced labor which systematically exploited the land and its people for his personal wealth and fame under a guise of colonialist philanthropy that deceived the governments of Europe and the United States from 1885 through 1908. When his reign of terror over this land and its people was finally broken, the population of the “Free State of Congo” had been cut in half; ten million lives were lost due to murder, starvation, exhaustion, exposure and disease while a plummeting birth rate contributed to this horrifying population decrease.

However, Leopold never set foot on the land that he so desired to control. He used intermediaries – pawns – to do his bidding both in the Congo and in the halls of skeptical governments. These bit players were financed by what would be hundreds of millions of today’s dollars violently extracted from the vines of rubber trees and the ivory tusks of elephants. As valuable as these natural resources were, profits from their sale alone would not have been enough to account for the riches Leopold amassed. Through the courageous investigations and tireless advocacy of men like George Washington Williams, William Sheppard, E. D. Morel, and Roger Casement, the international community eventually woke up to the economic reality behind Leopold’s profits: an immense system of forced labor imposed by a ruthless private army known as the Force Publique.  Leopold did his best to fight against the growing pile of evidence against him, but he eventually lost control over his “property” and was forced to sign it over to the Belgian government. The destruction of individual lives, families, societies, cultures, and the land of the Congo during Leopold’s rule continued after his death; it continues today. The Democratic Republic of Congo is still troubled by the spirits of greed, lust, and tyrannical power that were so diabolically manifested in King Leopold II of Belgium.

Aside from Hochschild’s extremely thorough, detailed, and clear depiction of this era in European and African history, a primary strength of his work are the intricate portraits of major players in the story of the Belgian Congo. Of course, Hochschild takes care to highlight the devious commanding character of King Leopold, but he gives just as much attention to two other very important characters: Henry Morton Stanley and E. D. Morel. Stanley became the “heroic” face of Leopold’s Congo as an internationally acclaimed explorer who traversed the land and laid the foundation for Leopold’s authoritarian rule. Stanley was known as a violent man, but Hochschild reveals how his outbursts of rage were fueled by inner wounds experienced in his childhood. As Hochschild so clearly illustrates through the life of Stanley, “the economic explanations of imperial expansion… are all valid, but there was psychological fuel as well” (151).

The portrayal of E. D. Morel is equally revealing. While Morel rightfully lays claim to a significant degree of responsibility for the Congo’s eventual release from Leopold, his advocacy for justice on behalf of the Congolese people was not without tension. Morel was a staunch supporter of British imperialism, which was also active on the African continent, even as he expressed outrage over King Leopold’s system of forced labor. However, unlike most other abolitionists, Morel insisted that the only long-term solution for the Congo lay in the power of free enterprise which required the ownership of land by indigenous Congolese people. Hochschild adeptly notes how Morel’s purist economic beliefs on land reform actually called the foundations of the entire European colonial project – Great Britain included – into question. In his rendering of Morel and Stanley, Hochschild reveals how these seemingly powerful men who held the attention of the Western world were actually driven by controlling forces – both internal and external – that lay far beyond their control.

As Hochschild notes in his concluding thoughts, this rich portrayal of individual European characters is also a weakness because the story of the Congo is not merely the story of European men – whether heroes or villains. I shared the sense of frustration that Hochschild expresses as he recalled the dearth of African voices in the archives of African history during the 19th and early 20th centuries. However, he does make an admirable attempt to include a few African voices from the era: the African King Affonso I and his impassioned letter to the Portuguese monarch on behalf of his people, the rebels who fought back against the Force Publique, and the second-hand accounts of men like George Washington Williams and William Sheppard who took the time to stop, listen to, and honor the indigenous people and their way of life. It seems that this weakness in Hochschild’s work is unavoidable given the historical circumstances of the era he studied. If this is the case, it is not only Hochschild’s weakness; it is a weakness shared by all of us who read from places of Western privilege and power; it is a tragic loss that should be deeply mourned.

The story of Leopold’s Congo casts a dark shadow over the history of Christianity in this section of Africa. Hochschild notes how thousands of Europeans, many of them missionaries, witnessed the horrific atrocities taking place and never raised a voice of concern. What is more, Leopold justified the entire Congo project in terms of his “Christian” duty to civilize the “poor Africans” and fight the Arab slave traders. Tragically, his justification fit seamlessly into the preferred narrative of European Christianity with respect to Africa during his time. Leopold also paid off Roman Catholic priests in the Congo who were deployed “almost as if they were soldiers” (134). He was recognized and lauded by Christian organizations in Europe and was thought to be a friend to all missionaries. Thankfully, there were a few missionaries, most notably William Sheppard, who saw the evil of Leopold’s work with clear vision and did whatever they could to bring change. However, these heroic individual efforts of the few faithful Christians pale in comparison to the horror inflicted by “Christian” nations and their armies across the continent as Hochschild rightfully records. Leopold’s Congo was hardly an exception – it was more like a rule.

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A wise saying I heard in class with a professor at Palmer Theological Seminary, Dr. Francesca Nuzzolese, comes to mind as I reflect on the implications of King Leopold’s Ghost for my practice of ministry: “pain that is not transformed is passed on.”[1] This truth is most evident to me in the life of Henry Morton Stanley, but it can also be seen in King Leopold’s life. I wonder what really separates me from men like Stanley and Leopold. Is the difference between us only a matter of degree of power and privilege? If I were given the same measure of power as they, would my untransformed inner pain be “passed on” as violently as theirs? The story Hochschild tells is truly a “ghost” story: it is scary. I most frightened by the unimaginable destructive potential of wounded, broken individuals who are given places of unaccountable privilege and power in which their untransformed pain is multiplied exponentially onto innocent others. My first reaction then is to reconsider my own inner struggles and reflect on how I am already passing that pain onto others, especially in a ministry context.

However, the second implication I draw from Hochschild’s telling of the Congo story gives me insight into how I can be different from Stanley, Leopold, and even Morel. The implication is this: when human persons, their land, and their different, diverse ways of life are abstracted, are gazed at from a distance, the risk of violence towards those people, places, and cultures increases dramatically. Leopold, along with most all of his European contemporaries, imagined the entire African continent as a faceless void of natural resources waiting to be plundered. This abstract, impersonal conception of thousands of distinct people groups and millions of acres of diverse ecosystems was fueled by the social distance created and sustained by European notions of power and privilege. How could a British “gentleman” really befriend an African “savage” or, even more unlikely, see the African as an equal? As I consider myself in ministry among those who have also been subjected to equally destructive powers of sin and evil, I am reminded of the need to bridge whatever distances may exist between me and those I serve. Justice must begin in friendship because “love exists only among equals.”[2] As long as I remain socially distant from those I feel called by God to love through service, I remain at risk of depersonalizing and dehumanizing them which makes them an easy target for my untransformed pain.


[1] A form of this saying can be found in the work of Franciscan friar Richard Rohr.

[2] Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, rev. ed., trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1988), xxxi.

A Review of “Writing – A Way to Pray”

In Writing – A Way to Pray, Arnold Cheyney presents writing as an essential skill for deepening the life of prayer. After briefly explaining his theoretical foundations, Cheyney devotes the rest of the book – nearly 75% – to helping the reader put his ideas into practice. The strength of his book lies in Cheyney’s pragmatic focus and strong Scriptural basis. However, he balances the entire book on a single educational theory known as “writing for learning.” Further, there is an overemphasis on human language that ignores the mysterious and unspeakable nature of God. Overall, this book is a helpful tool for the formation of an enriched spirituality in the lives of Christians – for beginning writers and expert novelists alike.

Cheyney begins by placing his work in the Ignatian prayer tradition, which focuses on the use of images to experience God. “Writing,” he says, “by definition and exercise, is imaging.” He outlines his basic assumptions on thinking, writing, time, motivation, and benefits to prayer throughout the first chapter. Most importantly, he introduces a main component of his thesis: “Writing promotes learning.” The theme of his work is described as learning to allow the thoughts of God, found primarily in His Word, to transform the minds of believers.

The idea of learning through writing is expanded in the second chapter. Cheyney shares how writing forces the reader to think with language and not only about language. He connects this idea with Scripture by saying that writing enables the reader to think with Scripture and not only about Scripture. He continues by presenting several positive consequences of writing for the reader’s mind. It helps the mind keep its focus, shape meaning, stimulate flexibility, and engage complex thoughts. Essentially, it enables the reader to learn by creating an environment where the reader can experience the meaning and purpose of Scripture instead of simply thinking about it.

The third and fourth chapters are comprised of several methods for practicing the art of prayer-writing. While the third chapter focuses on shorter, less time-consuming methods, the fourth chapter challenges readers to invest more time in fully exercising their imaginations. An example found in chapter three would be answering the questions posed by Jesus throughout the Gospels. In chapter four, Cheyney suggests script writing or poetry based on a Psalm. He offers a wide array of methods that will appeal to writers of all varieties. The book ends with several application sections where Cheyney provides resources for getting started with most all of the methods he described in the third and fourth chapters.

Throughout his book, Cheyney is encouraging readers to use writing to develop their mind and come to a deeper understanding of God’s Word. This idea finds overwhelming support in Scripture, especially in the New Testament. In all three Synoptic Gospels, Jesus includes loving God with a whole mind in the greatest commandment. The Apostle Paul is nearly obsessed with this idea and includes it in several of his letters. To the church in Rome he writes, “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” At the end of his famous exposition of love, he tells the church at Corinth in his first letter to grow up and let go of their childish ways of thinking. In his second letter to Corinth, Paul commands the church to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” To Philippi he writes, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” Peter also takes up Cheyney’s cause in his first letter when he encourages the believers to prepare their minds for action. Finally, James expresses his desire to see the Church develop their minds in order to avoid the folly of double-mindedness. Clearly, Cheyney’s argument for exercising the mind is supported in Scripture. For the reader who respects the authority of Scripture, it is impossible to discount the necessity of a sharp mind in following Christ. Since writing is an exercise in thinking, it is an essential skill for Christians to master as they seek to love God with all their minds.

Cheyney does not leave readers guessing about what this practice will look like in their everyday lives. He uses nearly three-quarters of the book to explain a wide array of prayer writing techniques. By providing his own prayer writing schedule, he gives the reader an even more concrete image of prayer-writing in action. If this were not enough, Cheyney ends the book with a workbook-like section containing resources for implementing many of the prayer-writing methods and techniques he has just described. These resources allow the reader to begin prayer-writing immediately. Upon finishing this book, readers will be fully equipped to incorporate writing into their prayer lives. This pragmatic focus is the book’s most compelling feature.

If the reader does not accept the idea of writing as a way to learn, this book will be a waste of time. Cheyney builds his entire argument on this single theory. He relies heavily on the work of William Zinsser whom he quotes as saying, “Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly about any subject at all.” If this idea is disregarded, the book simply becomes an interesting guide for practicing grammar.

The reader may also find Cheyney’s exalted role for human language in prayer to be problematic. His statement that “prayer is dependent on language,” seems to ignore the mysterious and unspeakable nature of both prayer and God. The Apostle Paul describes the intercession of the Holy Spirit as groans that cannot be expressed in words. Paul goes on to tell the church at Corinth that the mind cannot even conceive of the things God has planned for those who love Him. While God is certainly knowable, as He chooses to reveal Himself, human language will always fall short of describing Him. Cheyney does not seem to be aware of this limitation.

In conclusion, Cheyney has compiled a very useful tool that equips the Christian to fulfill an essential part of the greatest commandment – loving God with the whole mind. The reader is given more than enough examples to begin prayer-writing immediately. Since the idea that writing does in fact lead to learning is widely accepted, readers have no reason to fear their time is being wasted. As they write, they will inevitably learn; as they write about Scripture, they will learn how to think with Scripture. As the knowledge of Scripture moves from the head to the heart, the reader will be empowered to love God and neighbor with a fresh passion and creativity.

A Review of “What Would Jesus Deconstruct?”

In What Would Jesus Deconstruct?, John Caputo swings his postmodern wrecking ball – deconstruction – against all the cherished forms of religious thought and practice that masquerade as definitive and absolute. Not only is he willing and able to question all representations of statuesque, codified faith, he does so in the name of Christ and claims that his is good news. Caputo presents deconstruction as a loving tool that frees the Church for authentic metanoia – “a fundamental change of heart”[1] – in its own life and ministry. In his words, deconstruction is the “possibility of the impossible” and is therefore the “hermeneutics of the kingdom of God” – a kingdom where the unlovable are loved.[2] While it may seem risky and a little frightening, Caputo believes that the deconstructive way, the via negativa, is the only way forward if the Church is to embody the good news of the kingdom of God in our world today.

Caputo begins his discussion in an unexpected, yet familiar place for most evangelical Christians: what would Jesus do? After revealing the origin of this well-known question in the 1896 book by pastor Charles Sheldon entitled In His Steps, he suggests that the Church should begin asking this question of itself. As it does, it will necessarily be disturbed as it begins to see the “irreducible distance… between itself and Jesus.”[3] This disturbance is the essential work of deconstruction and is absolutely necessary if the Church is to “proclaim and enact and finally disappear into the kingdom that Jesus called for.”[4]

From there, Caputo plays on the phrase “in his steps” to frame the human condition as a journey. For Christians, Jesus’ steps are the ones to follow, but His steps are not easy to follow in everyday life. His steps, while not abandoning reality, always lead beyond it – to the “hyper-real.”[5] In this sense, the journey of a Christian is less about knowing the way and more about finding it; the way of Christ is by faith and not by sight. Caputo shows that deconstruction is a way of being that enables the Christian to stay “under way” on this journey where each step contains a misstep. Next, Caputo presents deconstruction as “a prayer for the impossible.” After introducing the idea of the postmodern event – “something that has already happened but is still arriving”[6] – he names four events for which deconstruction prays: justice, gift, forgiveness, and hospitality. Caputo explains how deconstruction calls the Church to dream about a future where the event becomes reality, to remember the suffering endured for the sake of the event, and to be made responsive to the event in the present day. In justice, gift, forgiveness, and hospitality, the overarching theme – the main event – is love. Contrary to what may be expected, deconstruction is about following the way of love.

At this point, Caputo begins to hone in on the question posed by the title of this book by offering a “theo-poetics of the kingdom”[7] evidenced by the life of Jesus in the New Testament. This theo-poetics is characterized by powerlessness in the form of nonviolence, mercy, and compassion. While Caputo denies that a direct path exists from the “theo-poetics of the impossible to the politics of the possible”,[8] he nevertheless calls the Church to imagine concrete political structures that “make the weakness of God stronger than the power of the world.”[9]  Finally, Caputo makes an attempt at answering the question of “What would Jesus deconstruct?” by addressing five issues concerning the Church today: economic injustice, militarism, patriarchy, abortion, and homosexuality. He makes a compelling demonstration for the implementation of the poetics of Christ into faithful praxis by combining hermeneutics and deconstruction. He concludes the book by presenting case studies of two churches where “deconstruction is being employed under the name of the kingdom.”[10]

Caputo presents an accessible and holistic view of deconstruction as the postmodern good news for the Church. While building on the work of academic and philosophical heavyweights like Jacques Derrida, Emmanuel Levinas, and Soren Kierkegaard, he does a very good job of explaining their thoughts in ways that even a philosophical novice can understand. The abundance and diversity of perspective on the topic also adds to its accessibility. Caputo includes several “deconstruction is” statements that tease out the subtlety inherent in this slippery and shape-shifting topic. Before he even begins to answer the question posed by his title, he takes more than half of the book’s pages to introduce the reader to deconstruction and some of its distinctive qualities. Only after this thorough introduction does he begin to put his deconstructive mind to task on several relevant issues for the Church. When he does, there is something for everyone. His discussion covers a broad spectrum of topics: economics, violence, gender, sexuality, and reproductive rights. Finally, Caputo gives his readers two detailed and divergent accounts of real-life, working churches where deconstruction is happening on the ground. These stories provide the reader with a lasting image of deconstruction at work in the world. With a lengthy and careful introduction to deconstruction, a wide-ranging discussion of a few things Jesus might deconstruct, and two striking examples of embodied deconstruction, Caputo gives his readers a highly nutritious and easily digestible feast of postmodern delight.

While his presentation of deconstruction is both accessible and holistic, and even humorous, it is sure to alienate a specific group of people: the Religious Right. Caputo admits that he is only a philosopher – not a pastor – and this is quite clear from the text. He does not even attempt to hide the fact that that he is intentionally provoking the ire of the Religious Right, along with most conservative evangelicals. He does make some attempts at hospitality to their reservations, but his overall tone remains highly critical. This explicit use of political categories makes deconstruction out to be a tool of “the Left,” which will result in increased resistance and division. Further, by failing to offer any meaningful critique of the Religious Left, Caputo seems to endorse one side of the US political spectrum over another. Without discussing the egregious amount of simplification that is employed when categories like Religious Right and Left are used, Caputo’s political bias drags his readers back into an old, tired battle that many are ready to put behind them, if they have not already.

Flaws aside, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is an essential text for any Christ follower yearning to see the kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven. While many conservative Christians may struggle with Caputo’s political overtones, they should not write off this work – or the theory of deconstruction – as some liberal scheme. Readers with little interest in philosophy may find this book too dense or boring; they should skip to chapters 5 and 6. Finally, this work will not be well received by those who are comfortable or pleased with the status quo. Pharisees beware! Caputo is out to dethrone the authorities of the Church with their oppressive claims of absolute truth. Loved by some and despised by others, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is a compelling primer to the liberating, life-giving, and loving work of deconstruction the Church desperately needs.


[1] p27

[2] p84

[3] p32

[4] p35

[5] p39

[6] p58

[7] p81

[8] p87

[9] p88

[10] p118

A Book for #SlowChurch – from anxiety through abundance to neighborhood

What is Slow Church? Honestly, I can’t quite say, but if you click on that link you’ll find a brand new blog that you gives you the gist of what it means. At any rate, something about the idea of being slow really excites me. I read this post the other day about a book that has helped to inspire this idea of Slow Church and I decided to take a look at my own library and see if there was anything that might contribute to the conversation. Here’s a little of what I found…

Journey to the Common Good 

by Walter Brueggemann

No one gets me more excited about reading the Old Testament than Walter Brueggemann. In Journey to the Common Good, he walks alongside the three great prophets of the Old Testament – Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah – and explores how they “may impinge upon the faith and life of the church as we journey together toward the common good that God wills for the world.” I’m sure all three stories could lend wisdom to the idea of Slow Church, I’m just going to share from the first chapter – “The Journey to the Common Good: Faith, Anxiety, and the Practice of Neighborliness” – since it seems to have the most obvious connections.

Brueggemann begins with the nation of Israel being sold into slavery by the work of the Israelite who was himself sold into slavery, that is Joseph. He describes the system of anxiety and fear that prevailed in Egypt. A system where no one has the time to even think about seeking the common good. In that system, daily survival is key. From there, he presents God’s great act of generosity in the wilderness that made the Israelite’s say, “What is it?” This giving of “wonder bread” was “required in order to break the death grip of the system of fear, anxiety, and greed.” Freed from this death grip, God’s chosen people have the opportunity for rest – for the first Sabbath – and can finally begin to think about others. Having accepted “God’s offer of abundance,” they are no longer confined to Egypt’s “kingdom of paucity.” This freedom creates the space for the people to be about the work of the neighborhood instead of mere survival. To use the words of John Stott, they are “freed from self for service” by the great generosity of God. Brueggemann presents the Exodus as a journey “from anxiety through abundance to neighborhood.”

But then it gets really good…

That journey from anxious scarcity through miraculous abundance to a neighborly common good has been peculiarly entrusted to the church and its allies. I take “church” here to refer to… [the] liturgical, interpretive offer to reimagine the world differently. When the church only echoes the world’s kingdom of scarcity, then it has failed in its vocation…

Specifically it is the Eucharist that is the great extravagant drama of the way in which the gospel of abundance overrides the claim of scarcity and invites the common good… The sacrament… is a gesture of divine abundance that breaks the scarcity system.

Brueggemann points us to Christ as the model. On two occasions in Mark, Jesus works an act of abundance to feed several thousand people in a “deserted place.” Sound familiar? Thousands of people being fed by God in a desert? Smells like manna to me. The disciples didn’t get it. They did not understand that “the ideology of scarcity has been broken, overwhelmed by the divine gift of abundance.” Brueggemann concludes:

It is our propensity, in society and in church, to trust the narrative of scarcity. That is what makes us greedy, and exclusive, and selfish, and coercive. Even the Eucharist can be made into an occasion for scarcity, as though there were not enough for all. Such scarcity leads to exclusion at the table, even as scarcity leads to exclusion from economic life.

But the narrative of abundance persists among us. Those who sign on and depart the system of anxious scarcity become the historymakers in the neighborhood. These are the ones not exhausted by Sabbath-less production who have enough energy to dream and hope. From dreams and hopes come such neighborly miracles as good health care, good schools, good housing, good care for the earth, and disarmament. The dreams subverts Pharaoh’s nightmare.”

Brueggemann is calling us, the Church, to break the cycle of fear and anxiety by living for others in the reality of God’s abundance; all our needs will be added as we seek first the Kingdom. When I consider what it means to be Slow Church, I think of churches that are places of sanctuary where all can find an escape from the rat race. It is church modeled against the accelerating pace of life; it is intentionally slow. It is restful. It embodies Sabbath.

The Slow Church is strategically poised to enact  the liturgical sign of God’s abundance – the Eucharist. But it might not be called the Eucharist. It could be a pot luck, a picnic, or an ice cream social. Who has the time for this stuff? People moving slowly. People who are planted in a place and committed to a life in and for that particular place. The fellowship of the table can break the cycle of fear and anxiety and free us for imagining new ways of moving forward… one step at a time.