Imagine True Religion: a book review

Most of us don’t like religion. Instead of having religious vocations like monks and nuns, we are the nones-and-dones. The ranks of exvangelicals swell as people leave churches marked too often by unhealthy power structures, patriarchy, prejudice, and a near lack of inclusion. But even among those of us still in the Evangelical Christian sub-culture, there is little enthusiasm about religion, as such. Evangelicals decry “Religion” as a human attempt to please God which had very-little-to-do with the Jesus revealed in the Bible. Religion, we say, is spelled D-O; Christianity was spelled D-O-N-E. Religion is a set of rules. We have a relationship. But for all our religious handwringing and bad spoken word poetry about how we aren’t in any way whatsoever religious, we had just as many rites, rituals, and dogma as everyone else.

978-1-63146-666-3Greg Paul doesn’t buy this evangelical antireligious rhetoric.  In his introduction to Resurrecting Religion, he recounts listening to a speaker at a large missional Christian conference rage against religion and thinking, “What is it we’re doing here? Isn’t all this, umm, religion? Wouldn’t anybody else say this is religious activity? Simply saying that we’re not religious doesn’t make it so. Are we fooling ourselves?” (xiii).  Rather than rail against religion, Greg Paul sees bad religion as our real problem: combative, legalistic, hierarchical, soul-numbing and functionally irrelevant, bad religion.

In the book, Greg probes how true religion calls us to care for the widows and orphans and keep ourselves from corruption(James 1:27). In retooling religion, he makes use of the book of James to show us how true religion compels us to care for those on the margins (not the center and the status quo). As a pastor, and therefore career ‘religious guy,’ he has plentiful examples of how he has tried to live this out within the context of the urban church he pastors in Toronto, Sanctuary.

I first became aware of Greg Paul’s work through his book God in the Alley (Shaw, 2004). That book described Paul’s seeing Christ’s presence among Toronto’s inner-city homeless population. Simply Open (Thomas Nelson, 2015) and Close Enough to Hear God Breathe (Thomas Nelson 2011) were about the cultivating our awareness of God in pray and in all of life. These all point to a contemplative awareness. In this sense, Greg Paul is kind of what I would call an evangelical mystic. The religious spirituality he describes in Resurrecting Religion is a spirituality of the Beatitudes—one that makes space for the oppressed and the vulnerable in the life the faith community, a spirituality of listening and a spirituality of submission to God in the face of life’s trials.

Greg Paul calls us not to throw off our religious chains, but toward a new reformation where our ideas of religion are overhauled and renewed as we seek to care for the vulnerable, show equal regard for all people regardless of their socioeconomic status, and follow Jesus. Because the epistle of James is G. Paul’s guide, he doesn’t focus on liturgy and ritual like other pro-religion books might (such as James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom). His focus, and in large part people’s problem with religion, is how we are to relate to one another. His closing chapter, “a twenty-first-century reformation” sets the trajectory he thinks our religiosity ought to take:

  •  Following Jesus away from the place of power, privilege, and security to the margins and the vulnerable.
  • An integrative approach to the gospel that holds up both a comprehensive theology of the Kingdom of God and pursues a vibrant, living relationship with Jesus.
  • The pursuit of justice and speaking up on behalf of the oppressed.
  • Directing our energies and resources outward not on our own church building and culture.
  • Commitment to community and to the values of the Kingdom of Heaven beyond our own economic interests, political affiliations.

Greg argues for a recovery of a religious, prophetic witness:

We would not keep silent when people who are poor are blamed for their poverty; when another young black man is unjustly shot and killed by police; when another First Nations woman goes missing and no investigation is begun; when supports for people who are addicted, mentally ill, or homeless are slashed again,; when unjust laws that target the poor are passed .We would claim those people as our brothers and sisters and raise our voices in support. We would abandon political-party allegiances and vote according to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those of us who are politicians or police officers or social workers or employees of banks and large corporations or military personnel or church workers would stand and speak loudly, if necessary as ones crying in the wilderness, about the injustice that infects the cultures within which we work and spreads to the world around us. (200).

When I picked up this book I expected it to be a sort of apologia for religion for our spiritual-but-not-religious age. Instead, this book is more of a manifesto for Christians to pursue True Religion in the way of Jesus. There are lots of stories from Greg’s ministry and the community of Sanctuary. I give this four stars and recommend it for pastors and ordinary readers who are tired of the same old bad religion and long for something more life-giving. -★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from NavPress and the TyndaleBlogNetwork in exchange for my honest review.

Sensual Prayer: a book review

The spiritual life is opening ourselves to God. Writers on prayer and contemplatives have urged us to tune our beings to God, to kneel in his presence and receive good things from him. Yet sometimes we don’t sense God. Sometimes we don’t open ourselves up to him because we are too busy grasping at everything else.

Pastor and author Greg Paul wrote Simply Open: A Guide to Experiencing God in the Everyday to lead us to  the land of greater openness. He wrote this book after a sabbatical from his pastorate at an urban Toronto church when he had spent time in prayer at Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight and hiking on the coast of Cornwall (21-2). Simply Open records his reflections, insights and prayer on opening the senses, mind and heart up to God.

A prayer provides the basic outline for this book:

  • Open my eyes that I may relase what I have seen, and so see you, see myself through your eyes, and truly see others.
  • Open my ears, that I may release what I have heard, and so hear you, become a listener, and truly hear others.
  • Open my nostrils, that I may release what I have inhaled, and so breathe in your fragrance, be delighted by it, and breath your Spirit upon others.
  • Open my mouth, that I may release what I have tasted, and so taste your goodness, be made strong by the sustenance you give, and share your sustaining grace with others.
  • Open my hands, that I may release what I have held, and so hold what you give me, be molded by your touch, and reach out to others.
  • Open my mind, that I  may release what I have understood, and so understand you understand myself, and understand others. 
  • Open my heart, that I may release what I have loved, and so receive your love for me, love you more deeply, and truly love others. (17)

Each of the sections above follows a fourfold structure: releasing, receiving, becoming, doing. So in each chapter,Greg unfolds our sense experience, the unhealthy things we need to let go in order to receive from God so that we may be transformed into those who do his will.  His chapter on ‘opening our eyes’ discusses the way our culture gives us far more than an eyeful. For example, objectification of women creates body image issues and pornography hurts both the viewer and the viewed (30-31). When we let go of our false images, then we begin seeing as God sees–people created in the image of God, fearfully and wonderfully made. Similarly, our inability to hear God is because of the cacophony that surrounds us. Receiving from God and learning to hear his voice means learning to say no to competing voices (59).

Greg offers similar reflections on the other senses. The nose (sense of smell), he ties to breath and talks about how we can open ourselves up to the Spirit (God’s breath/wind). Taste has us examine the variety of fare that we feed ourselves with, those in our midst who are starving and the sacramental enjoyment of God’s good things.  Our touch is how we learn love and form meaningful attachments, but  is also a source of wounds we need to release. Finally Greg  wants us to move to having  the ‘mind of Christ’ and hearts open to give and receive love.

In his last chapter Greg acknowledges that our spiritual senses are not as compartmentalized or linear as the above framework may suggest, “We will find that inhaling a particular fragrance, and receiving it as a gift of God’s Spirit, will cause us to hear and see things differently; we may realize that we need to let go of a way of thinking, and thus find our hearts drawn to loving someone previously unnoticed (211). What Greg Paul’s discussion of each of the senses, heart and mind do, is allow us to see the holistic and inclusive nature of spirituality and prayer. The abundant life is a sensual one–full of beauty and sound, tastes and wonders, smells and memory, thinking and love. By seeking to open up each  facet to God, we are able to offer our whole self to Him.

I have been a ‘fan’ of Greg since reading God in an Alley a number of years ago. What impressed me about that book was his hospitality to and humanizing of those on the margins (he pastors a church that reaches out in some beautiful ways).  This book was more like Close Enough to Hear God Breathe  (another book of his on prayer) than God in the Alley. But this isn’t just a book about prayer and the spiritual life. Greg knows that it is as we open ourselves up to God, we experience profound change in how we relate to others. The contemplative life leads to the active life (releasing and receiving lead to becoming and doing). I give this book five stars ★★★★★