Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Three Visions of a Christian Life


The church denomination I attend has a deep-rooted fear of “works righteousness,” the belief that our actions can in any way bring us closer to God. This fear, sadly, has resulted in many faithful Christians thinking that any call to do anything or change our lives is heretical. Nothing could be further from the truth, and as three new books emphasize, Christianity really is about how we life this life God gives us.

In Rumors of God, Darren Whitehead and Jon Tyson address speak to people who have grown dissatisfied with religious talk that doesn’t jibe with actions. Why, when the Church promises us heaven, do we feel no different at day’s end? Because, they say, we’ve allowed humans to reduce our faith to mere rumors and empty talk. But there’s so much more out there. God promises us a whole new life.

But they don’t just offer vague abstractions. They analyze what topics Jesus most discusses, what values make a Christian life—justice, community, freedom, and grace. They present the life of faith as one of engagement, where we don’t just believe, but we act, stepping out boldly in the knowledge that God guides our steps. The life of faith, for these authors, is a life of action, living out the commandments.

Sadly, many Christians may feel put off by this book because the authors discuss social issues. This makes many Christians uncomfortable. But the authors say nothing out of accord with Scripture, and in fact, they emphasize the promises and goals which the conventional church often overlooks.

This dovetails with Ben Patterson’s message in Muscular Faith. Patterson notes how often Christ, Paul, and other Scriptural voices describe faith and salvation using metaphors from athletics and warfare. Faith is not just something we have, he says; faith is something we strive after. We do not rest comfortable because we have been saved; we work for God’s Kingdom until we cross that final finish line.

Often, the modern Church acts uncomfortable with the warfare images in Scripture. We don’t like the idea that some people who mean well will nevertheless not make it into the Kingdom. But Patterson says we must take the Scripture seriously if we want to call ourselves Christian. “Fighting the good fight” is no mere figure of speech; we are called to strive for the Kingdom, strong in will and active in our intents.

Unlike Whitehead and Tyson, who state their thesis compactly, Patterson’s prose runs on longer than I would ordinarily like. He takes perhaps fifty pages longer than he needs to make his point. But in doing so, he carefully extracts the meaning of faith, not as a “one and done” affair, but as an ongoing process. We don’t get a rubber stamp on our passport to heaven when God enters our lives, but rather a mission to fulfill.

John Bevere takes this thesis even further in Extraordinary. Where most mainline churches preach that Christians are saved from their sins, Bevere claims we are saved into a new life, not only free from sin, but full of purpose. Bevere’s is probably the most controversial of these three books, because he claims the faithful Christian can shed sin altogether, but he bolsters this claim with copious scripture.

Bevere expands on Patterson’s themes of holy work and mission, saying that, if we pursue God’s Kingdom goals, we can live a life of much greater complexity and fulfillment than human desires can provide. Living out the mission brings pleasure to God, and bringing God pleasure brings meaning to us.

Bevere’s premise, that we can expunge sin and human shortcoming from our lives, will threaten conventional theology. But his exegesis has a broad and firm enough foundation that I’m willing to at least study and pray over his ideas. Even if his high-minded promises don’t wash in the end, Bevere at least gives us something to strive after—which, after all, is what all three books promise.

Too often, the biggest problem Christians face in their faith walk is not sin or temptation, but vagueness. Having been saved, we have too little sense what we’ve been saved for. These books give Christians something to be about, and not just something to oppose. I’ve said before that we lose when we treat faith as anything less than a whole life. These authors delve into what that really means at street level. Despite their shortcomings, I hope these books find the audience that so desperately needs to hear their message.

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