Crouching Corriedale, Christian Dragon: a ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ book review.

 Christians are supposed to be different. They are supposed to be in the world but not of it and reflect Christ’s coming kingdom more than the prince of this age. Yet too often we are indistinguishable from the wider culture, with the same dysfunctions and proclivities.  Nowhere is this felt so acutely as in the realm of power. The ongoing Christian fetish with leadership means the church often mines the corporate world and politics to discover how to lead churches and impact communities. The results are something effective but not without cost. Too often our leadership doesn’t reflect the character of Christ or challenge the power structures.

9780718022358_3Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel are two guys who grew up in a church and wanted to probe what the Christian approach to power and leadership should look like. They observe, “Over time we have come to see the way of power commended in Scripture is not the way of power we have seen in evangelicalism”(xxi). They describe examples of unhealthy power dynamics in the church.For example, Goggin relates visiting a church with a model of a ziggurat in the lobby, the church’s accomplishments on plaques on the side. There was apparently no sense of irony that the church had reconstructed the Tower of Babel in their foyer. Years later the church leadership melted down due to lack of financial accountability, fear and intimidating leadership and divisiveness (59-60).

They delinate other aspects of flawed and toxic leadership in the church:

Leadership of any kind will always be alearning to unhealthy, domineering and narcissistic individuals. The church is not immune to this, because the church can provide a context for power. A toxic leader is someone who maintains power and significance by manipulating followers through their own fundamental drive to be powerful and significant. Toxic leaders dominate and control. Toxic leaders weild their personalities to cement their power, relegating their followers to a position of dependence on them rather than on Christ. Toxic leaders do not develop other leaders, because they pose a threat to their own power. Toxic leaders create an unhealthy symbiosis between themselves and the organizations they lead, such that their absence would equal the collapse of the organization. In other words, a leader is toxic if he ceases to live according to the way of Jesus—the way of love, humanization, and truth, giving himself instead to the way of manipulation, dehumanization and deception (147).

If you have been part of a church, you likely have experienced and seen these dynamics (and maybe caused a few of them?). So, in The Way of Dragon or the Way of the Lamb they take a journey through the landscape of Christian culture to gain wisdom from some Christian sages. They intentionally sought out people who did not use their power for their own sake (16). They interview J.I Packer, Dallas Willard, Marva Dawn, Eugene Peterson, Jean Vanier and John Perkins.

These sages have a lot to say to Goggin and Strobel! From Packer, they learn that in “Christian life and in ministry, weakness is the way” (23). In their conversation with Jim Houston and his wife Rita, they probe how the quest for power in the church has revealed the quest for self-redemption. In contrast, Christian spirituality points to dependence on Christ and his example of self emptying as the key to human flourishing (43-44). Marva Dawn,  a theologian plagued by a lifetime of physical infirmity, is well acquainted with weakness, but also aware of the need to stand against the powers—insitutional and systemic evil. She points out the power of weakness and standing with the weak.  Perkins reveals the power of love in overcoming racism, xenophobia, and hate. Vanier speaks of the power in shared vulnerability and weakness in community. Peterson describes how to pastor a church in the way of the lamb. Willard described the importance of faithfulness over the value of success (152-53)And they said lots of other things too.

Because this book was fashioned around a series of conversations, it isn’t strictly linear, but cycles around similar themes. I think it is significant that the people profiled here are lions in winter, leaders at the end of their lives reflecting on what it has meant to live a lifestyle that is both faithful to Jesus and reflects the way of the lamb. Since their interviews both Dallas Willard and Rita Houston have gone to be with the Lord.

This is the second book that Goggin and Strobel wrote together (their previous book is Beloved Dust). I loved their first book and I couldn’t help but like this one too. It didn’t hurt that they literally interviewed all my favorite authors. As a Regent College guy, I have been strongly impacted by Peterson, Packer, Houston and Dawn. Dallas Willard’s Divine Conspiracy shaped my understanding of Christian formation. I met Perkins in the midst of urban ministry and found someone who loved more, suffered more and had more wisdom than my (at the time)twenty-something heart could hold. I’ve long admired Vanier and the work of L’Arche and Peterson shaped my entire understanding of what it means to be a pastor. My admiration for each of these folks continues to grow. If evangelicals sainted people, each of these sages would make the short list.

I appreciate the insights that Goggins and Strobel draw from their interviews and their encouragement to lead different and wield power differntly from the world. I give this book an enthusiastic five stars. -★ ★ ★ ★ ★

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

God Loves Dusty: a book review

The Bible tells us two major truths about what it means to be human. First, we are dust. We are here a moment, limited temporally and limited physically. Depressing as that sounds this is only a partial picture. The second truth about humanity is that we are beloved by God. These truths held together guide our self understanding and the way we ought to approach God. To be dust is to know our need, that we have nothing substantial to offer God in and of ourselves. To be beloved is to know that God himself cherishes and longs for relationship with us.

In Beloved Dust, Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel explore these two sides of our nature (our dusty belovedness) and show the implications for prayer and the spiritual life.  Where many books on prayer offer techniques and detailed plans, this book is more about our proper orientation to God. Goggin and Strobel do have things to say about spiritual practices but this is placed within the frame of this dual identity.

The spiritual life is often about letting go of expectations. In the introduction, Goggin reflects on his experience leading retreats. People go on retreat asking ‘how can I fix this?” (whatever is wrong in their life) or “How do I get that feeling back that I used to have with God?” (a longing for spiritual experience). But Goggins and Strobel point elsewhere, “Our prayer for you is that you may have the ability to hear that these are the wrong questions. We are not intereseted in quick solutions, techniques, and formulas for getting you back on track, nor are we hoping to guilt you into the idea that you aren’t doing enough and you should just get your act together” (xvii).  And so Goggin and Strobel’s alternative questions are: “Who is God?” “Who are we?” “What does it mean to relate to Him?” “What does it mean to be with him?” (xix).

And so Strobel and Goggin probe the depth of human identity–our frailty and our wonder. The talk about how God in Christ called us his beloved, and  how in the incarnation Jesus himself became dust by taking on our flesh.  For Goggin and Strobel then, Jesus is an exemplar but not just for his sinless perfection. Jesus embodies and understands his identity before God, as beloved son and (humanly speaking) as dust. When we likewise understand this idenity it enables true prayer:

What becomes clear as we observe Jesus praying is that to pray s beloved dust means to pray in reality. We pray in the reality of who we are. We pray as beloved children of the Father. We pray as dusty ones, sinful and broken. We are called to pray in the truth of our identity. If we do not pray in the truth of who we are, then we cannot truly call prayer  being with God.  Being with God implies that we have actually shown up; we are actually present. PRayer is not a place to hide and cover like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. It is a place to be honest like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. (113).

Our realness before God allows for relationship. Relationship means that prayer is not always a means to an end (fixing this or experiencing that).  As Goggin and Strobel observe, ” Real relationship takes place in reality, and reality is that sometimes we experience disconnection, silence, and confusion. Real relationship is discovered in being with another within these experiences (107).  The up and downs of life, feelings of spiritual dryness, profound longing are all seasons in relationship. Goggin and Strobel encourage us to press in anyway, “be with the God who is always with you. In short, the answer to desolation (dryness) in prayer is prayer” (109).

That is what this book is about. When we understand who we are before God, we are able to relate to him as we should. Are their disciplines and spiritual practices that nurture us? You bet. Goggin and Strobel commend regular and constant prayer, rest, silence, but this is no five step plan to intimacy with God. There is no formula, there is only relationship. We can press into God when we understand ourselves and we know his love for us. This is profound truth. Goggin and Strobel are also good communicators. There are plenty of analogies from their life–family, ministry, and pet chinchilla. This isn’t some boring disconnected treatise on prayer. I give this book five stars: ★★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received this book for free through the BookLook Bloggers program for the purposes of review. I was under no obligation to write a positive review, just an honest one.