The Christian Story As Our Deep Longing: a book review

Christianity is good news. But how is it good news for us? Philosopher Gregory Ganssle says the Christian Story is the answer to our deepest desires. In Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations, Ganssle describes how the good news of Jesus Christ makes sense of our longings and fulfills our common, human desires. Ganssle (Ph.D., Syracuse) is professor of philosophy at Talbot School of Theology and Biola University and the author of several books of theistic philosophy and apologetics.

5182In part 1, Ganssle describes what the Christian story has to teach us about personhood, our purpose and meaning, and our capacity for relationships. In part 2, Ganssle claims that Christianity answers our deep expectation for moral goodness. Part 3 explores how beauty points us toward God. In Part 4, Ganssle delves into what the Christian Story has to offer us by way freedom (and how it relates to Christian truth and hope).

As Ganssle explores each of these longings, in turn, he contrasts how the Christian story describes reality, with atheistic and materialistic stories and ways they answer these questions of desire. He differentiates the Christian faith from materialistic Darwinism, existentialism, utilitarianism, and thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Fredrick Nietzche, the New Atheists, etc. Ganssle does this all, with an accessible conversational tone, full of personal anecdotes and pop-cultural references.

IVP Academic classified this book as “RELIGION/Christian Theology/Apologetics”(back cover).  I think the ordering of these is essentially correct. Ganssle offers thoughts about the value of Christianity which I think will be instructive and beneficial, primarily for Christians as we think through a Christian understanding of reality, and what difference this makes for our lives. Ganssle explores more the ‘why Christians believe,’ than the ‘what’ Christians believe. This doesn’t mean what Ganssle says is solely subjective, but his emphasis is on the lived benefits of the Christianity—how it gives us meaning and a purpose and the ways it illuminates the true, the good and the beautiful and brings us hope and freedom.

This emphasis on the ‘why’ more than the ‘what,’ characterizes how Ganssle handles the Christian story. Ganssle uses ‘the Christian Story’ as shorthand for what Christians believe about the nature of reality. Ganssle doesn’t explore the narrative of scripture in great detail, though he does note along the way: creation, the fall, redemption, and consummation. Most of Ganssle’s Scriptural references are drawn from the New Testament (though he does reference Genesis 1-3, and, Psalm 19:3). Missing from his Christian Story is both the story of Israel and the Church’s story.  However, he is not telling us all of the what, but why the Christian Story answers our deep desires. 

As an apologetic, Ganssle doesn’t offer any ‘knock-down arguments,’ but his contrasting of worldviews highlights the ways in which Christianity speaks meaningfully to human longing. Ganssle notes in his introduction “If you recognize your own deep values in what I discuss, you may see that, indeed, Christianity makes a good deal of sense” (13). Seekers who are interested and exploring what the Christian story has to offer may find Ganssle’s answers compelling. The committed atheist will not find these brief reflections as persuasive. But I think one of the most valuable things about apologetic works, is that they show clear thinking and a rational basis for faith for those who are drawn into the Christian story or are staring back from the other side of conversion and wonder if they thought stuff through the issues well enough. To that end, Ganssle describes cogently how the gospel is good news, fulfills our deepest longings. That is pretty valuable.

I would recommend this book for believers and seeking-unbelievers who are exploring, or at least open to, Christianity and are curious as to what the Christian faith has to offer.  I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Notice of material connection, I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

W is for Waste (an alphabet for penitents)

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”” (Matthew 26:6–13, NIV)

Whenever the gospel is preached people remember her. John alone of the gospel writers remember that her name was Mary and that she was the sister of Martha and Lazarus (cf John 12:3). But Mark and Matthew also remember this costly anointing: An alabaster jar filled with nard poured over the head of Jesus.

The disciples sitting around the table saw this as wasteful. Why dump expensive perfume all over Jesus? He was not a 20th-century middle school boy and this was not Axe Body Spray.™  Shouldn’t she have sold the perfume to some other conspicuous consumer so that the money could be used to care for the poor?  Wouldn’t that be better?

John’s gospel puts the disciples’ objection in the mouth of Judas Iscariot’s and ascribes to him ulterior motives (John 12:4-5). Matthew and Mark both follow up their rendition with Judas making arrangements to betray Jesus into the hands of the chief priests. Yet, presumably, there were those around Simon the Leper’s table who just thought the money should just be better spent. Why with waste? There is absolutely nothing useful about dumping out a whole jar of nard.

Jesus response to Why this waste? is “Leave her alone! She has done a beautiful thing!” He acknowledges the ongoing plight of the poor. The poor you will always have with you . . . .These words allude to Deuteronomy 15:11, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.”  Jesus wasn’t saying do not care for the poor, but he was acknowledging that there was a place for extravagance and beauty in the spiritual life.

“The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.”As Christians, we call Jesus our Messiah—the Christ, the Anointed One.  This extravagant act was Jesus’ anointing before he would be arrested, tried and killed as an enemy of the State.

The woman with the alabaster jar did what Makoto Fujimura describes as a generative act (Culture Care, IVP 2017).  Her ostentatious and generous anointing was something beautiful in the middle of Jesus’ most trying and difficult week. Fujimura describes how as a young struggling (and starving) artist, his wife bringing home a bouquet of flowers fed his soul (15-16).  Could it be that this one wasteful act fed the Son of God’s soul and gave him the strength to face the hard days he had ahead?

Do something wasteful today, something extravagant and beautiful that feeds your soul and gives you strength for the hard days ahead.

[The picture above is the Anointing of Christ, by Julia Stancova].

 

From Culture Wars to Culture Care: a ★★★★★ book review

I grew up with a brand of Christianity which saw culture as a threat. We engaged in culture wars to combat secular humanism and political correct pluralism. We were suspicious of cultural decay—immorality, socialism, science,  heavy metal, the new-age, permissive poitical policies,  guys with baggy pants and other pernicious attacks on our Christian worldview. Artists, for their part, were engaged in a culture war of their own—  iconoclasts deconstructing institutions, tearing down conventions, destroying the status quo. When my tribe of Christians engaged in the arts, they either imitated secular artists with a thin Christian veneer or produced syrupy, saccharine Christian images (à la Thomas Kinkade).  Neither artists or the Christians I knew were doing much to ‘care for culture.’

9111Makoto Fujimura is a new breed of Christian artist. He is deeply steeped in Nihonga (traditional Japanese painting with specialized pigments and dyes). He is renowned for his artwork hanging in galleries around the world. He also founded the International Arts Movement and is currently the Director of Fuller’s  Seminary’s Brehm CenterFujimura’s art is more icon than iconoclast. In fact, one recent project of his is an edition of the King James Version, illuminated by Fujimura’s paintings. Fujimura’s newest book, Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty in Common Life, exemplifies his approach to Arts & Culture, one decidedly different than that of a culture war. Instead, Fujimura looks for ways to steward culture, nurture beauty and generative creativity.

This book consists of nineteen short chapters which give a framework for artists and creatives, advice and encouragement. The first chapter, On Becoming Generative ( previously released as an ebook), gives an overview of what he calls ‘generative thinking.’ He describes a scene from 1983. Fujimura was a near-starving artist struggling to make ends meet, his wife Judy was in grad school. One day when Fujimura was worried about where their next meal came from, his wife walked in with a bouquet of flowers. Fujimura was indignant, but his wife’s response was, “we need to feed our souls, too” (15).

His wife’s bouquet became a metaphor for the generative—a fruitful generating of new life and hope.  He describes how that experience was a genesis moment, a simple act which fed his soul and renewed his conviction as an artist (17), and generousity in valuing beauty over the worries of the day-to-day and scarcity (18). However, Fujimura also sees the need for generational thinking—”the inspiration to work within a vision for culture that is expressed in centuries and millennia rather than quarters, seasons or fashions” (19-20). In other words, our conception of arts and culture is shaped by the generations before us.

Fujimura goes on to describe what culture care is, “Culture care is to provide care for the culture’s ‘soul,’ to bring to our cultural home a bouquet of flowers so that reminders of beauty—both ephemeral and enduring—are present even in the harshest environments where survival is at stake” (22). Fujimura’s generative approach set him on a journey to ‘create and present beauty’ against the harsh, cynical backdrop of the New York city art world (26).

While Fujimura is not ‘cultural warrior’ he does stand in opposition to trends that are destructive to culture. He identifies two major pollutants in the river of culture as fragmentation and reductionism. “They are what I call overcommodification of art and utilitarian pragmatism” (34). They have the effect of causing artists in our ‘stressed ecosystem’ to sell short their artistic vision and output and become bottom feeders of culture for their own personal survival(36). Fujimura’s encouragement is to enlarge our vision for the arts.  The answer is not culture war but intentional stewardship of our cultural ecosystems. “Destruction and dissolution are far easier than creation and connection. We need vision, courage and perseverance” (43).

Fujimura discusses the need for personal soul care for artists, how beauty feeds our soul, working from the margins (‘border walkers,’ the meracstapa). calling and the ways business leaders, patrons, and investors make generative art and tending beauty possible. There are tons of practical advice, inspirational stories, and thoughts about culture, aesthetics, and theology.  Fujimura illustrates his approach through opening up parts of his own journey as an artist and curator for the arts, and the wisdom he learned from philosophers, pastors, theologians, and fellow creatives.

Fujimura is one of my favorite contemporary artists (my wife was lucky enough to take a class with him at Regent College one summer). I cherish his thoughts on the creative process and culture care. While his focus is on culture care for artists (broadly defined), his discussion of beauty needs to be recovered by the whole church (artists lead the way). I give this book five stars and recommend it for artists, poets, musicians, pastors, business leaders and anyone else that has a stake in shaping culture. ★★★★★

Note: I received a copy of this book from InterVarstiy Press in exchange for my honest review