42 Seconds to Talk Like Jesus: a book review

I  read a book by Carl Medearis half a dozen years ago on the art of Not-Evangelism (Speaking of Jesus, David Cook, 2011).  It was a breath of fresh air. Medearis didn’t advocate manipulative techniques to talk about your faith. He said to not get stuck trying to defend the faith but he pointed at talking about our experience of Jesus in ways that were winsome, inviting and authentic. That was the only one of Medearis’s books I’ve read, though I’d hear him as a podcast guest occasionally, talking about his work as a peacemaker and his advocacy for Arab-American and Muslim-Christian relations. He is very much evangelical, but he has sought to respond to terror and Islam in ways that reflect the manner and character of Jesus.

978-1-63146-489-8His newest book, 42 seconds, was birthed after a casual conversation he had with his neighbor as they both were working in their yards. Afterward, he emailed his assistant Jesse and asked him to look up every conversation Jesus ever had in the gospels. Hesse compiled a list, and the two of them read through each conversation, out loud, discovering the average conversation Jesus got in was 42 seconds long (ix, at least the portion of the conversation recorded in the Gospels). Medearis notes, “Because Jesus being Jesus, his conversations were typically anything but normal. and when I realized this—when I realized Jesus managed to turn otherwise everyday conversations into something profound—I knew I had to figure out how he did it” (ix).

So Medearis compiled a month’s worth of meditations on Jesus’ conversations, to be read for the course of four weeks. Each week has five readings on a theme, plus ‘a final word’ which tie it together with some reflections and suggestions for practice. These reflections are organized under the headings: “Be Kind,” “Be Present,” “Be Brave,
and, putting it all together, “Be Jesus.” Sorry, Melania, No “Be Best.”

Each daily entry has some practical reflections for engaging people in conversation about things that matter. The “Be Kind” section begins by exhorting us to say hi to people and acknowledge the people we fail to see (e.g. like the waiter or busboy filling your water). Medearis encourages us to ask questions, find some small act of service to do,  to pay attention to children (the way Jesus did). The “Be Present” section describes cultivating attention to the person we are talking to, and what may really be going on with them (instead of rushing to some strategic end, letting conversations go where they go).

The “Be Brave” section presses into the challenging things that Jesus said. Jesus says hard things, but not to everybody, and not always (religious insiders bore the brunt of his criticisms). The final section, “Be Jesus” prompts us to make sure our words and life are consistent with the life and witness of Jesus.

Medearis weaves stories of his own interactions with strangers and friends—evangelistic conversations or otherwise—with  Jesus’ conversations with people in the Bible. Medearis is winsome and this book is pretty accessible. If you read it over the course of a month, there are small challenges to be more like Jesus in our conversations and make every 42 seconds count. This isn’t a book on evangelism but on entering into more significant conversations (which includes evangelism or something like it). I give this four stars. -★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from NavPress through the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my honest review.

 

7 stories: a book review

The trajectory of the biblical story is toward non-violence. We see this not only in the movement from the Canaanite conquest (and other so-called holy wars) to the cross of Christ, but also in the very telos of New Creation—wolf and lamb together, a child playing on a snake hole, swords into plowshares, and no tears in our eyes. Anthony Bartlett traces Seven Stories of seismic transformation themes working through the biblical narrative and culminating in Christ.

Bartlett read philosophy and theology at London University, spent 10 years as a Catholic priest, left the priesthood and came under the guidance of Carlo Carretto, discovered the works of René Girard and pursued and got Ph.D. from Syracuse University where he studied under James William (eminent Girardian scholar). Seven Stories is the product of eighteen years of Bible Studies which he and his wife led. This is a course book designed to explore the movement toward non-violence in Scripture.

The book divides into Seven Stories (clever title, right?) with an introductory section exploring methodology. Each section has three chapters. In the method section, Bartlett lays out the nature of scripture, and historical-critical methods, an overview of (objective) atonement models throughout Christian history, and he provides an explanation of Girard’s non-violent atonement. In each of the story sections, the general structure is: a lesson showing a concept in the Hebrew Bible, a second lesson showing the way an idea developed or began to be redefined by the Hebrew community, and a third lesson examining how the trajectory of Hebrew scripture reaches a radical conclusion in the person of Jesus Christ. The transformative shifts which Bartlett describes are the following:

  • 1. Oppression –> to Justice
  • 2. Violence –> to Forgiveness
  • 3. The Land and its Loss
  • 4. Wrath –> to Compassion (with special attention to Second Isaiah)
  • 5. Victim –> to Vindication
  • 6. The Temple and its Deconstruction
  • 7. History –> to its End.

These 7 stories, or lenses on the biblical narrative, probe different aspects of the Bible’s move toward non-violence. Because Bartlett is a teacher, and this book is set up as a text, for personal or group study. Each chapter concludes with lesson questions, questions for personal reflection, a glossary of relevant terms, resources for background reading and cultural references (e.g. relevant movies, literature or music). Each chapter begins with a description of learning objectives, core biblical texts, key points, and keywords. Similarly, there is an at a glance overview at the start of each section of the book.

The gift of each “story” is that it illuminates an aspect of the larger biblical story. However, a peculiar lens can also obscure certain details. Because of Bartlett’s Girardian bent (one that I am sympathetic with), he focuses his discussion of the history of the atonement (Method1.2) on objective models (Christus Victor, Sacrifice, and substitutionary atonement) without any reference to concurrent developments of subjective atonement models (i.e.  Moral Influence models). When he discusses the Hebrew concept of land and its loss (S.3), he offers a superficial analysis of the Hebrew theology of land, though certainly, he notes the shift that happens with exile and the coming of Christ.

I mention this less as a critique and more an acknowledgment of the book’s limitations. It doesn’t delve deeply into every concept in theology or the biblical text, nor does it deal with every issue comprehensively. This is an introductory text designed to call attention to a particular shift in the text—the shift towards non-violence in biblical revelation. I think it succeeds to that end, and while I am still sometimes confused by Girard (though I  like what I’ve read of him) Bartlett sharpened my understanding of his perspective.

This could be a good book for exploring biblical non-violence in a group setting. One of the things I appreciated most was the attention that Bartlett gives the Hebrew Scripture and the literary sensitive way he reads the text. He describes the calling of Israel as the Hapiru (marginalized outsiders). patriarchs, Deuternomistic history, the role of the go’el, and the sacred symbols of temple and land. Of course, Bartlett’s Christocentric reading means that he has an eye to where Jesus builds on and redefines what went before, but he notes continuities in the development of revelation as well as discontinuities. I give this book four stars. -★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book via Speak Easy, in exchange for my awesome review

Lent: Jesus and the Demon of Status Quo

Mark’s gospel tells us that after Jesus called his first disciples—Simon, Andrew, James and John—they left their nets and followed him. They all went to Capernaum. On the Sabbath day Jesus was teaching in the synagogue and a demonized man was there.  The man screamed, “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? We know you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus quieted the man, cast out the demon, and he set the man free (Mark:1-21-28).

This was Jesus’ first healing, and his first confrontation with the Darkness after his wilderness temptation. And it happened in a house of worship. The three L’s of exorcism are: location, location, location

Diverse interpreters of the Bible understand these unclean spirits differently. The quasi-charismatic evangelical hermeneutic that shaped my reading of the text, takes the spiritual world as a given. These are demons—beings of personal evil bent on destroying humanity. Post-Enlightenment bible scholars with a bent toward demythologizing the supernatural look at what the spirits means within the early church’s proclamation. So one group looks at demons as personal evil (could it be . . . Satan?) and the other group see demons as representations of cultural and institutional structures (e.g. the ‘spirit of the times’). The result is that one camp reads this account as Jesus’ confrontation with a very real spiritual being, the other camp understands this as Jesus’ encounter with systemic, structural evil.

Of course these two readings are not mutually exclusive. It is possible to observe, in the context of Mark, a man in the synagogue who was really demonized and that Jesus’ first miracle and confrontation with the demonic happened after his teaching challenged the teaching of the scribes. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22).

Ched Meyers observes, [T]he meaning of the powerful act must be found by viewing it in terms of symbolic reproduction of social conflict” (Binding the Strong Man, Orbis 1988, 2008, 142). The demonic stronghold becomes apparent as Jesus opposes the pervading political, social and religious thought.

Meyers writes:

Although Jesus identity is hidden to the protagonists (e.g. the disciples) in the story, the demons know exactly who he is. Clearly understanding the political threat he poses to the status quo, they struggle to “name” (that is control) him (1:34; 3:11) (143).

In Lent, it is easy to talk about following Jesus and the cost of discipleship. It is even easier to conceive our Lenten journey as our own little private devotion to God. However, walking with Jesus the way of the cross necessarily will bring us into spiritual, political conflict with evil. Following Jesus means opposing structures and systems which hurt people. In Mark’s story, Jesus’ teaching is contrasted with the scribes for the authority of his teaching (1:22, 27). In Matthew 23, Jesus is explicit in condemning the teaching of the scribes and Pharisees for their hypocrisy, and the way they subvert true justice. And yet these were the social, political and cultural leaders of his day.

The way of the cross is not about private spiritual devotion. It confronts political realities. This was as true at the beginning of Jesus’ mission as it was at the end.

“What’s that got to do with us Jesus of Nazareth?”

The status quo tends to hurts people. If you want to see the reality of demons, question it. When you hear the phrase what’s that got to do with us (or what that’s got to do with me) you may be listening to a demon. Cain, the first murderer, uttered a similar sentiment, “Am I my brothers keeper?”  That’s demonic. It is also demonic when a Christian apologist shames mass shooting victims for speaking out about assault rifles. Or when the victims of domestic or sexual violence are discounted because of due process. Or when you see an angry outburst when someone dares to say black lives matter, and challenges the practices of law enforcement and mass incarceration. Narrow is the gate to salvation but we have institutionalized the wide way of destruction.

Following Jesus will bring us more and more into confrontation with the powers because the way of Jesus is diametrically opposed to the kingdom of this word. To walk with Jesus will mean challenging unjust systems, structures and the status quo. If it doesn’t, you’re doing it wrong.

 

 

 

Going Old Testament on Nonviolence: a book review

Every reader of the Old Testament wrestles with the violence they find there. God in the Old Testament, sanctions wars, even calls for the destruction of women and children and seems merciless and genocidal in his dealing with the Canaanites. In contrast, in the New Testament, Jesus’s response to human violence is to die on a cross. Is there any way to reconcile the violent God of the Old Testament with the God of love revealed in Jesus?

fc-fullsizeThe angst over the violence of God in scripture is where Matthew Curtis Fleischer begins The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence. He notes the violence in its pages and the real stumbling block to belief which OT violence is to non-Christians. Fleischer is a reader, a writer, and an attorney.  Here he weighs evidence, and builds a case, asserting that not only are we able to reconcile the OT’s violence with the New Testament’s non-violence “but also how it supports the NT’s case for nonviolence and how the OT itself advocates for nonviolence” (7).

Fleischer builds his case in twelve chapters. Chapter 1 introduces the topic—the problem of violence in the Old Testament. In chapter 2, he introduces his key to reconciling the two testaments, namely, ‘incremental ethical revelation.’ That is, the Old Testament represented an advancement of the ethics in ANE culture (e.g.  legal protection for the disadvantaged, criminal penalties more humane, the roots of egalitarianism and women’s rights, rules of warfare, etc). Fleischer writes, “Although God’s OT laws and actions were imperfect, incomplete, fell short of the created ideals, and left much to be desired by current standards, they constituted a significant ethical improvement at the time” (21). And yet there were moral concessions to where people were at (e.g. Mosaic divorce law). 

In chapter 3, Fleischer fleshes out how Jesus fulfills the law and the prophets, examining Jesus’ six antitheses and the ways Jesus’ moral law didn’t ‘transgress OT laws’ but ‘transcended it (30-31). He develops this further in chapter 4, highlighting the ethical movement toward non-violence as fulfillment in the Bible (e.g. God’s condemnation of violence, the anti-violence of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus’ non-violent commands and the non-violence of the cross). Chapter 5 discusses the nature and purpose of incremental revelation, God establishing his existence and authority and teaching the basics of obedience to his people before moving on to higher moral standards.

Chapters 6 through 9 re-examine what the Old Testament says about Israel as a ‘set apart people,’ the Canaanite conquest, and God’s character as revealed in the Old Testament. The establishment of Israel as a ‘holy nation,’ and the punishment of the Canaanites were indeed violent; nevertheless, Fleischer traces the movement toward non-violence in the Bible, and how violence not being an essential aspect of God’s revealed character.  Chapter 10 notes that a lot of the violence in the Old Testament is descriptive, rather than prescriptive, not commanded by God but carried out by human hands. Chapter 11 describes the incremental revelation of God’s character in scripture (again, culminating in Jesus). Chapter 12 concludes the book, a closing argument for biblical non-violence.

Fleischer training as a lawyer serves him well as he weighs the evidence of scripture and builds his case. I think he makes a strong case for incremental ethical revelation, and as a Christian reader of the Old Testament, I’m inclined to agree with the concept. He calls as his expert witnesses like Bible scholars (e.g. Richard Hays, Christopher Wright, David Lamb, N.T. Wright, etc ), theologians (William Cavanaugh, Jacque Ellul, Jurgen Moltmann), Anabaptist thinkers (John Howard Yoder, Donald Kraybill, Greg Boyd), apologists (especially Paul Copan), as well as popular authors (Preston Sprinkle, Derek Flood, Brian Zahnd).  Fleischer synthesizes their insights into a Christocentric ethic, claiming that Jesus was where the story was moving, and He is the moral of the story.

Certainly, Fleischer notes the movement toward non-violence is already in the Old Testament. However, his Christological focus makes this is really the Biblical Case for Nonviolence. The New Testament ethic has pride of place, and the ethical development in the Old Testament is seen as steps along the way until we get to Jesus. I’m am inclined to agree with Fleischer’s reading and focus, though I wish he spent more time exploring the antiviolence of the prophets (particularly their understanding of shalom and the eschaton). The case for nonviolence is really there in the Old Testament.

I also wish his chapter on the Canaanite conquest was more detailed. He says some great stuff here. He mentions some things in passing that mitigate against understanding the conquest as a genocide (e.g.  ANE hyperbole, the nature of the settlement at Jericho, God’s judgment in relation to Genesis 15:16, the limited nature of the military campaign, Israel’s stalling tactics, and the counter-narrative of Judges showing a more peaceful conquest of the land). I think these are important things to wrestle with when you look at the book of Joshua, but they do not wholly alleviate our modern discomfort with what we find in its pages. As the Canaanite conquest is a central complaint of New Atheists (e.g. Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins), and this is the central chapter of this book, I wish he took a more detailed look at it, and the concept of Herem in the Deuteronomistic history.

But then I’m kind of an Old Testament guy, so wanting more engagement with the text, may be my own proclivity. I like a lot that Fleischer is committed to reading the Old Testament as scripture—acknowledging the influence its human writers but also understanding it as a revelation of God. This is a pretty solid look at the issues which I happily recommend. I give this four stars. – ★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for my honest review

 

The Joyful Wait of Glory

Our journey through Advent is nearly at its end. Tomorrow is the 4th Sunday of Advent and already Christmas Eve! The light has grown, both with the warm Advent candlelight and the incremental lengthening days. There is still darkness all around, but yonder breaks a new and glorious morn. 

How are you feeling right now? Excited? Hopeful? Warm? Stressed out? Anxious? Lonely? The holidays bring in their wake a mix of emotions. It seems there is always too much of something, and far too little of another thing.  And beyond the holiday cheer,  a heaviness hangs in the air.

We are cynical enough that we expect political corruption in our leaders, but we wonder how far it all goes. We worry about taxes, environmental destruction, systemic discrimination, and policies that break up immigrant families (to deter illegal crossings). We are sickened by the constant barrage of sexual assault news. Closer to home, we hurt when we feel disconnected and distant from the ones we love. We feel the sting of rejection when the ones we thought loved us don’t really love us the way we long. We feel the trauma of past wounds. We worry about making ends meet, our deteriorating health, and about our kids’ emotional intelligence and social development. All of this makes us feel heavy.

The promise of joy seems like an end to the heaviness. We long for the day which will be only light and warmth. Then, we will glory in the incredible lightness of being. 

Hebrews 12:1-2 is a familiar passage promising us strength for the journey:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Jesus is our exemplar. Like Him, we may cast aside every hindrance in pursuit of what is ahead. Jesus, the pioneer and perfector of our faith, endured the cross for the joy set before Him.  He was glorified for it. He sits now at God’s right hand.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book called The Weight of Glory. The name is clever but redundant. In Hebrew, the word for glory, כָּבוֹד, means just that: weight and heaviness. Certainly, it has the connotation of honor and praise, presences, radiance and all of that, but underneath these lofty notions is substance and consequence. God and Jesus are forces to be reckoned with.

We see the weight of glory illustrated in 1 Samuel 4 when the ark of God is captured. When Eli heard that ark was captured, he collapsed and died under his own weight, that is his own glory (1 Sam 4:18). His daughter-in-law named her son Ichabod because the glory of the Lord departed Israel (the weight of God no longer rested on the Ark’s mercy seat, 1 Sam 4:21). Too much weight had been given to leaders and strategy (and even the magic ark), Israel did not give to YHWH his proper due. They did not follow God wholeheartedly, they gave weight to these other things. With the weight of God departed, the ark was taken away (V. Philips Long first alerted me to this weighty wordplay in Samuel).

The Joy of the Lord we await is not weightlessness. We await the day when all the stuff we face, will have their proper weight. Anxieties, worries, wounds will not weigh us down the way they do now. We won’t be heavy laden with past guilt, present danger, or our anxiety about our future. We will no longer be burdened by sin or tangled in the bramble. We will finally give weight to what matters most.

We will see the Lord exalted, high and lifted up, the train of his robe filling the temple (Isaiah 6:1).  God’s glory will be revealed. And all the struggle and the pain, the scorning and shame, will no longer matter on the day when Christ comes again to reign. It will be worth the wait when we see the substantial, powerful, radiant and weighty, Glory of God. For the joy set before us, we joyfully await the glory.

Joy Comes in the Morning

When I was in college, my friend Eric and I came up with a worship leader comedy routine. Eric would stand with his guitar. I’d pick up my Bible and turn to the page I had bookmarked so I could read the way worship leader’s sometimes read Bible passages between songs. Eric would tilt his chin upward, eyes closed, a pious smile on his face.

I would inhale and in one breath read:

ThewordoftheLordthatcametoZephaniahsonofCushi-thesonofGedaliahthesonofAmariah-
thesonofHezekiahduringthereignofJosiah
-sonofAmonkingofJudah:

Eric would nod and smile,  and occasionally he’d interject with a yes Lord or an Amen as I continued to read, only slower now, pausing for emphasis:

“I will sweep away everything
    from the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord.
 “I will sweep away both man and beast;
    I will sweep away the birds in the sky
    and the fish in the sea—
    and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.”

“When I destroy all mankind
    on the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord,
 “I will stretch out my hand against Judah
    and against all who live in Jerusalem.
I will destroy every remnant of Baal worship in this place,
    the very names of the idolatrous priests—
 those who bow down on the roofs
    to worship the starry host,
those who bow down and swear by the Lord
    and who also swear by Molek,
 those who turn back from following the Lord
    and neither seek the Lord nor inquire of him.

 

Then I would close my Bible and bow my head in silence. After about 10 or 15 seconds Eric would launch into song, ” ♪ ♫ There is joy in the Lord, there is love in His Spirit, there is hope in the knowledge of Him . . .”

 

I don’t think we ever finished the song. The juxtaposition of one of the judgiest Bible passages (Zephaniah 1) with happy-clappy, contemporary worship made us laugh. We enjoyed the joke more anyone else did.  Everyone thought we were irreverent.

The joke was better than Eric and I realized. The Joy of the Lord came as a happy surprise to those who only heard words of judgment and destruction. As goofy and impious as we were, we managed to touch on and demonstrate something of the joy that came with Jesus.

Christ’s Advent was the start of a great reversal. Though the world dwelt in darkness, full of wounded and dying people, living fragmented life, the promise of Christ opened up new possibilities: hope, shalom, wholeness, well-being, healing, deliverance, salvation.  Though “weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5).

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy coined a word to describe this sort of reversal, eucatastrophe. In his essay, On Fairy Storieshe described a cataclysmic shift in a story where certain destruction is averted by a joyful sudden turn of events—the consolation of a happy ending:

The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.

Anyone who has read the Lord of Rings knows these eucatastrophic turnarounds (think Gandalf’s return or the eagles). But of course, eucatastrophe is not just an element in fairy stories. We see it Romantic Comedies where the despised jerks (Mr. Darcy!) turn out, in the end, to be truly quite wonderful. Good jokes, too, have this kind of joyful surprise. The eucatastrophe is written into the fabric of reality:

[I]n the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world. The use of this word gives a hint of my epilogue. It is a serious and dangerous matter. It is presumptuous of me to touch upon such a theme; but if by grace what I say has in any respect any validity, it is, of course, only one facet of a truth incalculably rich: finite only because the capacity of Man for whom this was done is finite

So, the gospel of Jesus Christ is eucatastrophe!  Tolkien called the “Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history (and the Resurrection of Christ the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation). Jesus’ return and the New Heaven and Earth will be the eucatastrophe for which all creation groans (Romans 8:22).

So here we are, the third week of Advent. The world is still dark and days short (in the Northern hemisphere). Suffering, struggle, and sorrow is what we know. Our only experience of peace is a tenuous armistice of mutually-assured-destruction. We await eucatastrophic turnaround. Though weeping may last through the night, Joy comes in the morning.

How Absurd Shall We Then Live? a book review

If theology is, in some sense, biography, Gospel of the Absurd(Wipf & Stock, 2017) bubbles up from R. Scot Miller’s circuitous faith journey. Miller grew up Lutheran in Flint, Michigan, rejected his childhood faith, and found belonging among anarchist and Marxist groups, practicing resistance in Detroit’s punk scene of the 1980s. There, he succumbed to a crack-cocaine addiction. His journey back to faith coincided with his journey into recovery. Today, he is a Quaker, a minister at Common Spirit Church of the Brethren in Grand Rapids, a dairy farmer, substance abuse therapist and adjunct professor of theology at Earlham School of Religion. His theology combines a post-liberal hermeneutic with an Anabaptist Constantinian critique of civil religion, Christocentric virtue ethics, anarchist dissent and a commitment to justice and Christian community. Miller wears simple clothes and a wide-brimmed hat but is also a vocal supporter of causes like Black Lives Matter. He is the embodiment of a punk-rock-Amish aesthetic.

9781498296465[1]What is the gospel of the absurd? The absurd claim “that voluntary sacrifice of privilege is the proper response to human brokenness and the systems of domination that have lured the church toward apostasy” (back cover). Too often the Christian public ethic has been coercive, seeking to legislate morality through political power (often issues like abortion and marriage-equality). Miller writes, “I suggest that the failure of Christian ethics is related to Christianity’s continuing quest for power as a political force, because it is perceived to be a coercive force in people’s lives” (7). Miller proposes instead a biblical informed, communal ethics characterized by faithfulness.

Miller’s argument unfolds in roughly three parts. The first four chapters provide a diagnostic for the failure of Christian public witness and ethics in America. Chapters five through seven describe how narrative, revelation and eschatology give shape and specificity to Christian ethics Chapters eight through eleven describe the components of a communal, embodied virtue and care ethic.

Chapter 1 describes the failure of Christian ethics because we have understood our ethical claims as universally authoritative for all (and therefore coercive). In Miller’s analysis, Scripture remains an authority, interpreted contingently by the faith community because “it provides a community with textual discourse by which the world and truth claims can be evaluated in faith” (13).

In chapter 2, Miller describes ‘the dark shadow of the Enlightenment.’ Enlightenment and Post Enlightenment ethics rested on rationalism, utilitarianism, and emotivism. Miller names also the growing absence of the use of Scripture to articulate a credible ethic to the secular world, even among Christian ethicists. This comes into focus in Chapter 3 where Miller discusses how civil religion (à la Reinhold Niebuhr) blurs the lines between Christian faithfulness and our faith in the power of democracy. In contrast Miller describes a biblical ethic of absurdity which makes no sense to the wisdom of our age:

Perhaps a biblical ethic is an ethic of absurdity. The gospel is absurd on its face when one reads the claims made in the Sermon on the Mount, or the manner in which Jesus feeds crows of five thousand from a few loaves and fishes. Stories of resurrections may or may not be absurd, but belief in such stories most certainly is. Yet, if an ethic is to be Christ-centered, I propose that it must have two qualities at the very least: the particulars of the Christian ethic must be gleaned from a faith community’s reading and discussing scripture together, and those communities most be brave enough to have faith that even the absurd produces possibilities, and most radical kinds of faithfulness are the most fruitful. If one believes in the resurrection of the messiah, one must live as though it is true and embody the meaning of such an event for both church and world. (40)

In chapter 4, Who would Dirk Willems torture?, Miller draws upon the witness of the sixteenth century Anabaptist martyr and places him in contradistinction to contemporary evangelical discussions of the acceptability of torture. As with civil religion, scriptural and Christological considerations, get pushed to the margin, but in so doing, a Christian’s ethics become less than Christian. Our ethical arguments rest on emotivism or pragmatism.  Miller observes:

The Christian ethic is voluntary, so while an individual may eschew the Christ-centered interpretive activity of loving one’s enemies by feeding them and providing drink, they may choose an alternative, secular or military ethic by which to abide. Such a decision automatically rejects the Christian path in favor of another. A Christian may choose to torture, but in doing so may automatically render his claim to be a Christian moot. She may indeed find herself barred from participation in her congregation or group until she repents of her engagement with the world through adherence to the secular ethic. (54).

In chapter 5, Miller describes how a shift from describing ethics as a rational system, to understanding ethics through narrative, allows us to articulate an ethic of faithfulness (with a particular focus on the biblical narrative). Miller writes, “The reality of experience can only be translated from one age to another through narrative, providing the story with the authority to credibly interpret events” (70).

His argument comes into sharper focus in chapter 6 and 7 as his discussion turns toward the nature of revelation and eschatology. Miller calls us toward an understanding of revelation “as neither mystery or paradox, but a call for the church to act in history with a new understanding of brokenness” (81). This shifts our concept of revelation away from philosophical and abstraction towards actionable faithfulness. Miller also asserts the biblical narrative gives shape to our understanding of how to be in the world. In his discussion of eschatology, Miller encourages us to not see eschatology and the coming of the Kingdom of God as an end to our space-time universe, but the in-breaking of the Spirit of Christ into human history and our present (103). Thus, eschatology is not about the world burning, but our ability to imagine new possibilities in God.

In chapter 8, Miller describes his own commitment to non-violence, the practice of the early church (evidenced by the fourth century Acts of Philip) and the call for Christians to embody an ethic of faithfulness. So while there is an eschaton in which Miller appeals to, he is hoping also for a recovery of the faithful witness of the church prior to Constantine:

I have suggested that to begin a return to being a church that reflects faithfulness, a starting point is not to suspend reason, but rather to prioritize faithfulness to God and the divine desire for human relationships evidenced in the life of Jesus. We must also revisit the history of the early church to identify not only what the witness of the church looked like before Constantine, but what social and political factors facilitated the radical changes I believe occurred during that era that skewed the manner in which Christians viewed the role of the church in the world. (111)

This ethic of faithfulness, presses Miller toward a virtue ethic patterned on Jesus (who embodied faithfulness to God) and lived out in the faith community (126-127). Miller builds on this Christological virtue ethic, by drawing on womanist theology to illuminate a care ethic which enables us to become “more Christlike, more biblical in our work, and more present in our work for God’s justice” (132).

In chapter 10, Miller explores the experience of injustice faced by African-Americans in this country, and the theology of James Cone and womanists, in order to describe ethics from “the other.” Miller notes that the Bible has been used selectively against people of color and on the margins in our country (e.g. to prop up slavery, Jim Crow, sexism to maintain systemic injustice and patriarchy, etc.); however a theology from the margins  “rejects both naïve realism and idealism” and engages in both a hermeneutic of suspicion and resistance (147). By exploring the African-American experience, Miller elicits both empathy for the injustices black Americans have suffered and invites us to listen to their wisdom on what it means for us to walk in the way of Jesus. Miller writes:

White Christians cannot relate to or walk a mile in the shoes of African-Americans, refugees from war zones, undocumented Latinos, or American Muslims targeted as “terrorists” Yet, I offer the views of black Americans above to illustrate how we might view the historic person of Jesus within a context that allows for an experience of Ricoeur’s “secondary naivete” of Jesus’ social location, as well as an understanding of the necessity of emptying oneself of privilege in order to perform as a witness to God’s redeeming and reconciling work through incarnational presence. We can begin to unpack the nature of the cross, and what is necessary to the efficacy of the cross in light of resurrection theology. I believe we can embody the moral vision that is part and parcel of this kenotic theology through the development of care ethics grounded in a community’s interpretation of the text. Practice will lend itself toward sanctifying perfection.

Chapter 11 concludes the book with some reflections on our current political moment (2017) and invites congregations to share meals and discuss the gospels and Acts and ask what we are expected to do in response to what we find there (153).

Miller synthesizes the insights of John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, Alasdair MacIntyre, and presents a strong case for re-engaging scripture in community with an eye for how we should then live. He also highlights some of the common missteps which keep us from embodying faithfulness in the way of Jesus (e.g. rationalism, emotivism, civil religion, etc). There is a lot that is fruitful here, for this moment of history. There are evangelicals who have accepted Trump as their champion, while never asking what his agenda has to do with the way of Jesus. There are those more upset about football players dishonor a flag than they are about the systematic and state-sponsored destruction of black bodies. This is our cultural moment. Miller calls us back to the gospel faithfulness first modeled for us by Jesus. Following in the way of Jesus means both to the obedient life of discipleship and to a lifestyle of care for the marginalized victims of systemic injustice and patriarchy. And to Christians like me, raised and nourished by an evangelical faith that emphasized personal salvation, Miller reminds us that the Christian life is lived in community.

I read this book a couple of times before writing this review, to make sure I was following the flow of Miller’s thought. There is no introductory roadmap and for a short book, it is fairly dense. That isn’t a criticism, so much an acknowledgment that if your church small group is used to reading something fluffy and banal (I’m resisting the urge to name names here), this may be too close to the deep end for them. However, this would be a great book to read and discuss with your thinker and activist friends. I give this four and a half stars. -★★★★½

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from Wipf & Stock Publishers in exchange for my honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own