Category Archives: Faith Without Illusions (the book)

cover.FWI

Disillusionment, Cynicism, & Christian Eschatology

More and more I am recognizing that my book on cynicism (see the icon in to the right)  is ultimately a pastoral exercise in applying Christian eschatology to our daily reality.

Cynicism arises from disillusionment.  When the rug gets jerked form beneath our feet and we find ourselves breathless staring up at the ceiling, wondering what hit us, only to remember, oh yeah, it was REALITY that hit.  Idealism cannot thrive in an ex-Eden world. But cynicism is just as untenable in a world into which Christ has come, from which He has ascended, and to which He will return.

Eschatology is why cynicism is not valid… at least not for Christians.

If there is an open hole in the ground of this earth—the empty tomb of Jesus—then something cataclysmic has taken place.  The resurrection of the dead, implied in a few places in the OT (Isa 25, Dan 12, Ezek 37) and discussed more openly in the literature of Early Judaism, has been jump-started into our present sphere by the “first fruits” (1 Cor 15) of Christ’s own resurrection.  The New Age to Come (this is language found in Early Judaism and throughout the NT) has lurched backward from the future into our current time, overlapping with the Present Evil Age.

In Faith Without Illusions, I cite George Eldon Ladd near the end. Here is a wonderful quote I just reread this afternoon:

Christ’s resurrection is not an isolated event; it is in fact an eschatological occurrence which has been transplanted into the midst of history. We are living already on the heavenward side of the first stage of the resurrection. This puts a whole new light on the whole human predicament. [1]

You can click on the About the Blog section for more on “hopeful realism,” the perspective alternative to cynicism and idealism I am calling for in the book. Ultimately, hopeful realism is both eschatological (“hopeful”—appreciating the work of God in the overlap of the Ages and anticipating Christ’s return) and cosmological (“realism”—recognizing the full brunt of fallenness that has plagued our world and our own hearts so disastrously).

The Kingdom is in our midst… and still yet to come.

 

George Eldon Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom: Scriptural Studies in the Kingdom of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1959) 44.

LEVE 3

Faith Without Illusions, Dutch-Style

I discovered a few months ago that my book on cynicism, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint, was in the process of being translated… into Dutch.

FWI has not had much of a readership since its release in the Spring of 2011.  This has been hard on the ego, but really good for the soul.

Somehow, a Christian journalist from the Netherlands caught wind of the book, liked it, and pulled of some impressive work behind Dutch and American scenes to bring the book to life in his own country.

This journalist is now a friend of mine, and I am excited about visiting with him over the weekend.  I think the behind-the-scenes story goes something like this: this new friend found my article “We Need More Boring Christians” at RelevantMagazine.com and traced the links to my blog and the book.  He eventually found an English copy of FWI, read it, found it helpful, and set up a Skype interview with me last Spring.  His magazine (CV Koers) has featured some of the material from the book and from that interview in a new re-launch of sorts.  At some point, the Dutch publishing house Jongbloed (Youngblood) got into the picture.  I contacted InterVarsity Press to see if they were on board with all this.  Turns out the wheels were already rolling on that end as well.

And so the book is released this week in The Netherlands.  I have lived in two different countries since the book’s release in English, and no where has interest in FWI been stronger than in this country I have never lived in.  All I can say, is that the whole thing is just bemusing, interesting, ironic, exciting… and fun.

Now, I have had no real involvement in this entire process.  And I am an amateur author, with no idea how these author-ish things work.

I found out the title last night:

Leve de Saaie Christenen! Hoopvul Realistisch

Guess what it means?

(Long) Live the Boring Christians! Hopeful Realism

Authors do not get to choose their titles… at least not amateur authors with low readership.  And when it comes to a translation, I have to trust the folks on the ground, so to speak.  They know what they are doing more than I do.  What is interesting about this new title is that it capitalizes heavily on the second chapter of my book and on that Relevant piece I wrote.  What is also interesting is that Busby and I have toyed around with another book idea for which “Long Live the Boring Christians” would be a rather apt title.

This appearance of my book in a new language and a new culture provides me a personal vantage point for understanding “reception history,” something I am studying as a PhD candidate in New Testament.  Written works have a history of how they are received.  Those energetic proponents of the material in FWI are keen on bringing it to their own cultural niche, and they received that material in ways Americans or Indians or Bolivians or Italians would not.  Certain elements are more accentuated and feel more urgent.  Others may seem less significant.

When you write something and it gets published, it is eerily and joyfully out of your hands and into the hands of others.  Ultimately, it is in the hands of God, so may it be done to that book according to His will.

 

And long live boring Christians… in The Netherlands and elsewhere.

 

Grune 2

Celebrity Culture, Speaker Circuit & Church: Meet John (The Baptist)

This post draws on last week’s “Celebrity Culture, the ‘Speaker Circuit,’ and John the Baptist.

In that post I struggle over being an author who believes deeply in his message to the church, but feels uncomfortable with the apparatus for getting messages out to churches: booking speaking engagements, beefing up a network, using social media to expand a platform, etc.

Please note—I have friends in the speaker circuit who conduct themselves nobly and with integrity.  They do the practical networking stuff in a way that seems grounded in Christ-centered devotion.  I’m just expressing my own personal discomfort with the whole thing.

(Paul refers to “weak” believers who could not eat the meat sold in the Greco-Roman markets.  Some people held convictions that were unnecessary, but not necessarily wrong.  Maybe I am one of those sort when it comes to this.)

 

Celebrity (& Consumer) Culture and Mass-Marketing Divine Oracles

Beyond my own personal wranglings, the way the church and her “influencers” receive and relay messages is extremely important for us to think about.  Should we be examining the apparatus of message-marketing that serves as a primary means of shaping and influencing the church’s thinking?  Here is the question from the previous post:

How can we avoid the kitsch and the dangers of celebrity culture when God has assigned a public platform for so many members of the church?

To get a public message out to a wider audience beyond one’s own local parish requires public relations.  And that can get tricky for a Christian in a culture that loves (and loves to hate) local or regional or global celebrities.

What’s more, mass public messages to the church today are often in the form of purchasable material, like books (or speaker bookings, when can creep up into multi-thousand dollar figures per 30 minutes).

This means that the messages must be buy-able.

Which also means that public messages get intertwined not only with celebrity culture, but with the values and operations of our consumer culture.  I know I get squeamish quite easily.  But some of this is worthy of squeamishness.

 

A Voice in the Wild

Enter: John the Baptist.

I acknowledged in the last post that the prophets and the apostles (we could add Jesus Himself) offered public messages within a certain range of expected parameters for, well, ancient PR.  They were different from their contemporary public figures, and tried to draw distinctions: Paul could be easily looped in with the sophists, the (usually) itinerant crowd-wowers and cultural “influencers” of antiquity’s public square (1 Cor 1 offers a whiff of this).  Though different, they were using certain means of public communication already established in the culture.  Even in Jewish quarters like Palestine there was some understanding that a rabbi might take up followers and share his teaching in public with others.

By 1st century standards, John the Baptist was something of an off-the-charts sensation.

His fame, of course, cannot be understood thru our own pop-cultural lenses (in spite of the language I just used in the previous sentence).  But we can note that his was a household name.  Hordes gathered to him.  Were John ministering in a 21st century setting, his Twitter followership would have been enormous and his blog stats through the roof… assuming he would have used social media.

And actually, that is a big assumption, mind you, no matter how confident today’s media enthusiasts might assert axiomatically that he certainly would have been known as @JBap.

But maybe he would have—the man had a message.  He is described in terms of “a voice” (from Isa 40:3).  And he did not shy away from lifting that voice.  But before we jump to conclusions about how he might use modern-day PR methods, let’s consider this: his preferred attire was not that of fine robes (or designer jeans!) and his preferred venue was the barren wild, not the market or the palace lawn (on his dress and base of operations, see Mt 11:7-8).

So how did he manage his public persona?

Perhaps just as importantly, how did the Gospel writers present his public persona?

In all four Gospels, John the Baptist appears like a bolt out of the blue… and then he recedes almost immediately into the background, drifting backstage as soon as Jesus appears.

John’s Gospel, as I mentioned in the prequel to this post, seems most deliberate in presenting the Baptist as a loud, robust, vocal persona whose “platform” exists for one purpose only: to exalt another.  In Luke and Matthew, Jesus calls John the greatest man born of woman (Lk 7.28/Mt 11.11).

What we find in the Fourth Gospel is that the vocation of the greatest of all mortal men is to point to someone greater… and then fade away. 

Behold the Lamb! (Jn 1.29, 36)

He must increase, but I must decrease. (Jn 3.30)

John the Baptist is a good role model for anyone involved in public ministry.  To the extent that our books, “speaking events,” Tweets and blog posts are in direct service of the message we believe God has given us—these should point to Jesus while the author (the “voice”) intentionally recedes into the backstage shadows.

 

The Church of One Celeb

But there is something else to learn from John’s Gospel about today’s apparatus for conveying and receiving mass-marketed messages. Not only should we be concerned with the public persona, but with how the people of God receive and regard that “celebrity” figure.  One does not become “famous” without fans or “popular” without a populace.  How should the church behave itself in regard to our prominent leaders, “influencers” and messengers?

Like Andrew and the unnamed disciple in John 1:35-37—

The next day, John was standing with two of his disciples, and he looked at Jesus as he walked by and said, “Behold the Lamb of God!”  The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

When our prominent “influencers” point beyond themselves to the Best and the Highest, then we should follow the trajectory of their gaze.  As in the well-known work of art above, let’s follow the trajectory Grünewald depicts of John the Baptist’s long, re-directing finger.

 

 

 

 

Grune 2

Celebrity Culture, the “Speaking Circuit,” and John the Baptist

I am one of those tortured-soul types.  And this post is an invitation into one of my ongoing struggles.  (“Welcome all you suckers to Struggleville” as my friend Bill Mallonee used to sing).

The struggle I am writing about here is more than a personal struggle.  This is a church struggle.  The issue is this:

How can we avoid the kitsch and the dangers of celebrity culture when God has assigned a public platform for so many members of the church? 

The question is important for both those who lift their voices publicly, AND for the church which gives them a platform and lends the ear.

I am struggling with this because I am an author.  As an author, I have this overriding sense that God has supplied a message that needs a public hearing.  But marketing techniques, strategies for “building your platform,” and trying to bag multiple speaking engagements can feel like dodgy enterprises.

I remember having coffee with a marketing pro while my first book was circulating between editor and copy editor as an unpublished pdf file.  She told me it was time to start making calls, time to get the word out, time to knock on the doors, utilize my networking skills and call on all my contacts: if you believe in your message, you have to get it out there, and that objective requires marketing.

This “marketing pro” is not a slick ad-woman with a knack for cut-throat business dealing.  She is a Godly, sensible person committed to getting the messages of God through certain authors to the church.

But did anyone ever have a heart-to-heart with Jeremiah and tell him he needed to beef up his networks and start Tweeting like a maniac?

No.

But… Yet…

Here is the thing: the Bible is full of people to whom God gave a public message and to whom He assigned a public ministry.  And in 6th century BC Judah and in 1st century AD Athens, there was a culturally accepted apparatus in place for how someone aired public messages in public.  Jeremiah could stand on the Temple steps and Paul knew to ascend the Areopagus.

I have been thinking about entering what folks in the know call “the speaker circuit.”  It feels presumptuous even to write that, and the phrase “the speaker circuit” makes me cringe with awkwardness.

But… Yet….

I really believe in Faith Without Illusions.  I remember those long hours writing on cynicism, revisiting my own disillusionment, praying and studying with such urgency—and all these practices were endured for the sake of finding and producing some cultural artifact (a book) that by the astonishing and ironic power of providence would be helpful to the church. And as I work on this second book (‘TheoMedia’) the excitement and urgency is no less.

Then again, when Jeremiah had a fire in his bones, he didn’t have a product to sell.

And it is quite unlikely Isaiah would have done much book signing while sitting nude outside that Jerusalem gate.

Now, I am not celebrity-material in personality or appearance.  I am a marketing flop, not a marketing pro.  I have tweeted about my book once.  I blog about it very rarely, and I feel a little weird about having the image of its cover on the  column to the right.  But the fire is in the bones, crackling within the pages, and perhaps it is irresponsible not to get the thing out there on the Temple steps and in the ears of those lingering about the Areopagus.

But how does one faithfully lift a voice in the public square without endorsing celebrity culture or co-opting the personality-driven tribalism so prevalent in the church?

Dear Church/Campus Ministry/University,

I am a gifted speaker and a published author.  I would love to share with your congregation/students what God has placed on my heart.  Please consider booking me for one of your upcoming church/chapel events so that we can all benefit from these insights together.

Sincerely,

Itinerant Speaker

I used to get letters like these quite often when I served in pastoral ministry.  And they always turned me off.  My book is on the stuff Christians do that make us cynical.  And this sort of thing can get my own cynical juices flowing.

But… Yet…

Many of us have been divinely appointed to the public role of lifting voices, whether through preaching or writing.  So how should it be done with integrity and with a cautious resistance to the trappings of celebrity culture?

I have some friends who do this speaker circuit thing for a living, and I trust them.  I just really trust them.  I can look to them as models. The one I will make the most influential model, however, will be John the Baptist as he is portrayed in the Gospel of John.  For the Fourth Evangelist, John the Baptist showed up, loudly pointed to someone greater, and then faded away….   That is the demeanor captured in the painting above where the Baptist juts his long, lanky finger out toward Jesus.

More on that in the next post….

 

 

When a Dead Man Interrupts your Cynical Conversation (from Lk 24)

[The meditation below is adapted from the last chapter of my book, Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint]

 

Holy Week is not necessarily a “happy week.”  The truth is, many of us are disillusioned.  Prayers tossed skyward have been met with no reply.  Our eyes have scanned the horizon for an immaterial rescue.  Celebrating with the church calendar can be an embittering exercise for those disenchanted with the church or with its Lord.

Such disillusionment is actually quite fitting for Holy Week.  On Good Friday, we recall those hours when the Lord of the church tossed his own unacknowledged prayers skyward and found the same horizons empty of deliverance.  Sharp disappointment is embedded within the Gospel passion narratives.  It is perhaps most personalized in St. Luke’s account of a conversation along the Emmaus road.

The Evangelist does not tell us why they are heading there… just how they are heading there.  Demoralized and deflated, the two disciples are trudging along a rocky road leading away from Jerusalem.

Away from Jerusalem.

Away from the noise of mobs demanding blood.  Away from the sight of cruciform posts with dangling bodies.  This may well be the most cynical conversation in the New Testament.

“What are you two talking about?”

An interruption.  The traveler had been edging closer to them as they walked.  These travelers are in no mood for an eavesdropper.  “They stood still, looing sad” (Lk 24:17).  One of the disciples, Cleopas, decides to speak.  It is not a very chatty response: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know what has happened?”

“Fill me in.”

They tell the man about Jesus of Nazareth.  He had been an impressive fellow, doing and saying stuff like no one else.  Died not more than three days ago.  “We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.”

We had hoped.

“I might add something,” the disciple volunteered, “something odd.  Some women we know were making wild claims just before we left town, claims about seeing angels and not being able to find his body.  Not sure what that’s all about.”

Missing corpse? Yeah, whatever. We had hoped.

“Where are you two headed?”

“Emmaus.”

“Mind if I join you?”

This new conversation partner changes the tone.  For someone who has not been following the news in Jerusalem, he has much to say.  The mourning disciples realize they do not want to bid him farewell.  They are thankful for his interruption.  He sticks around for supper. Then they see him. They see him.

We hope.  Faintly, at times.  But we hope.

The disillusionment of that first Holy Week was met with the abrupt explosion of Resurrection.  To prepare for Easter, let’s be ready to have our cynical conversations interrupted by a man once dead.  And if a dead man imposes himself on our disillusioned dialogue, you know something is happening.  When the Messiah vacates his tomb, something is stirring.  Something new and wild.  Something against the establishment.  Death’s establishment.  At the voice of the resurrected Lord, the cosmic superstructure of evil detects a virus in the system.  A wrench has been tossed into sin’s machinery.  The foundations start to pop with fissures.  It’s time to plug up the leak, to contain the fire, to reseal any open tombs.  Time for chaos to panic.  Time for Satan to go berserk.  Resurrection is God shaking his clenched fist in death’s face.  Resurrection is God whispering death threats in death’s ears.

The open tomb of Jesus is a hole in the system that cannot be patched, defying the persistence of all that makes us cynical.  The re-creating King has climbed up out of his grave.  Keep an eye on that horizon.  He is out there, loose, at large, roaming free—and returning at dawn.

Conan O’Brien: “I hate cynicism”

To all the folks who read (and made comments, to which I will soon reply) on my former post, I say thank you.  My sober reflections on Faith Without Illusions (my book on cynicism within and toward the church) has been quite difficult for me… but also motivating.  The more I consider the book’s content the more convinced I am of its pertinence.  I am trying to think of better way of getting the message out on the book’s one year anniversary.

(Photo from Wikipedia

So my latest idea is that I should ask Conan O’Brien to endorse it.  He would be keen, don’t you think?

I am not a late night TV watcher, but a good friend pointed me to the video clip below.  It’s where Conan bid farewell to “The Tonight Show” a couple of years back.  At the end he says this about cynicism:

To all the people watching, I can never thank you enough for your kindness to me and I’ll think about it for the rest of my life. All I ask of you is one thing: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism — it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere (Source: The Huffington Post)

So if anyone knows Conan, send me his address so I can mail him a copy!

Here’s the clip…

O’Brien’s Farewell to The Tonight Show

1-Year Anniversary of Faith Without Illusions (part 1)

A year ago I ripped open a cardboard box stamped with “InterVarsity Press.”  There is just nothing like it, seeing your first book.  From Word doc on a screen to a thing in your hand.  Text once pixelated now reified (I really like the word “reify”).  Ripping open the box to find freshly minted copies of longsuffering labor is accompanied by all sorts of hopes (and fears).  How will God use this material?  What fruit with the book bear in the life of the church?  Who will be personally changed from flipping the pages?  And how will the book be used beyond my control?   When your book is actually in your hands as a thing, it is also out of your hands as a piece of public art.

The 1-year anniversary of the book’s release date has come.  Faith Without Illusions is a year old.  Reflections on the occasion begin with this post.  More will follow.

(Soberly) Assessing the Reception

I am going to do my best to assess the book’s reception with a good sense of humor.  I begin pointing out that FWI has maintained a 5-star review even after a year (okay, there are only four people who reviewed, one being a colleague who may still not have read it).  And I should also add that book sales tripled this past week on Amazon (I went from 1 copies to 3 in seven days).  I could see that two folks from Portland bought the book.  That’s Don Miller territory, so thanks, folks, whoever you are!

On a more positive note, FWI has been rather highly reviewed on a number of blogs.  I am just so grateful to these folks for spending the time reading and posting their reflections:

Scot McKnight (Jesus Creed)

Joel Willits (Eaungelion)

Joel Watts (Unsettled Christianity)

David Flowers (The Centrality & Supremacy of Christ)

The Making of Men

Also, the book was reviewed very nicely at the Englewood Review of Books.  Two Sunday School classes at my church in Birmingham were kind enough to let me speak on the book’s topics.   I know a handful of friends and a few family members have read the book (most of whom liked it).  Thanks to Kyle B., Ralph B., Sarah H., Linda W., Mark Y., Katherine J. and Bob W.: their encouragement means all the more now on the 1-year anniversary.

I have to say, though, that it is really hard not to feel the dull ache of disillusionment when your book addressing disillusionment seems to be suffering a year later from a failure to launch.  Don’t worry—I have all the more reason to resist being cynical since FWI is written to counter cynicism (still, it is really hard).  Yeah, I know that this sort of self-assessment would be inadvisable according to the marketing handbooks.  But to honor the cynic-saints out there, a rosy spin on things exacerbates cynicism.

Some of my humbling moments as an “author” have been rather comical.   Like my first (and only) public “book-signing.”  It was at a local Christian bookshop in Pelham, Alabama.  The owner had received a pre-release copy and found the book helpful.  Graciously, he decided to offer free copies as an Easter gift.  One lady stood by my desk all aglow, as if I were beaming on her from my hallowed position as an accomplished author.  She spoke with me knowingly, as if she had established some deep connection with me through my writing.  It was nice, you know?  Nice to feel as though you were finally an author and accomplished to boot.  Then as I was signing her book she said something and I realized what was happening.

She thought I was David Platt.

I hated to disappoint her, but at least the book was free.

Another comical moment was realizing my book came out in the midst of all the hype over Rob Bell’s bestseller Love Wins.  (Okay, maybe this coincidence is less funny).

A Lesson: There is More to Being an Author than being a Writer

I think a writer is not the same as an author these days.  What I mean is, I have been learning that writing stuff, even if somehow you manage to write really good stuff, may actually be a secondary or even tertiary skillset for an author.  Writers write stuff.  But an author writes and then nurtures her product, needles it into a readership, makes media contacts, posts with savvy strategies for increasing their blog traffic, and she tenaciously seeks speaking engagements.

I have learned that I am a better writer than an author.  I get squeamish about all the other stuff.  It even feels weird to hyperlink the image of FWI above to Amazon (but note that I did it anyway).

I have given out a lot of free and heavily discounted copies of the book (yeah, I am a poor businessman).  Many of them went to some rather influential folks out there.  I am quite sure most of those copies have gone unread.  (Probably didn’t help that in the note within the front cover I told them not to feel any pressure to read the thing, knowing how busy they were).

An IVP marketing manager tried to help me see these behind the scenes realities to being an author.  She was very gracious.  I think IVP operates with more commercial scruples than most Christian publishing houses.  And I guess they sort of knew what they were getting into with me, daringly signing on an un-platformed writer (as opposed to a platformed author).  Of course, maybe it would have helped I had not boarded a flight for Europe 5 months after the release date, but it is not like the Inbox was hopping with speaking requests.

I love to speak and teach.  I love it.  Preaching has become fundamental to who I am.  Woe is me if I do not preach.  But for years I received emails and letters from authors who wanted to speak to my own congregation or student groups.  In my view, their request disqualified them as a potential speaker.

But what if you have a message you believe to be urgent for the church?  How do you get it across without compromising the call to humility?  I know Godly authors.  They can make the media contacts and offer their services as guest speakers without conflicts of conscience.  How do they do that?  The prophets lifted their voices in the public square… how did they wrestle with the temptations to make their message more “marketable”?

Asking for Help

I think I need to ask for help.  If Faith Without Illusions is just another example of the mediocre fare, then I have no interest in getting the word out.  But I have never been more convinced of the urgency of the book’s message.  So… any ideas?  Anyone want to help me think of a (scrupulous) plan for how to celebrate (not bemoan!) the book’s 1-year anniversary?  Any other “writers” out there struggling with the vocation of “author”?  I would love the feedback….