American Christians have an earned reputation for only listening to each other. We are famed for brewing extreme agendas, often without consulting Scripture. Psychologists call this “group polarization,” when when we speak only to people we already agree with, and emerge believing a more extreme, intolerant version of our prior opinion. The military has an altogether more apropos term: “incestuous amplification.”
Tony Kriz grew up in a conservative Christian community, and fresh out of college, he thought he had faith sewn up. So he joined the mission field, becoming an early evangelist in the newly opened Albania. But in an environment perhaps best described as “high pressure banality,” he discovered that Christianity means more than doctrine. And he found that, to hear God’s voice, he had to listen to more than church insiders.
Kriz’s faith memoir resembles other recent Christian authors like Shane Claiborne and Donald Miller. (Kriz plays a supporting role in Miller’s Blue Like Jazz.) Like them, Kriz writes for Christians, about the importance of overcoming the cultural trappings we often mistake for a genuine relationship with God. He shows what he learned the hard way, that God unmakes true believers before remaking us in God’s image.
Albania made a harsh proving ground for a young evangelist. He entered dividing the world into “us,” Christians, and “them,” everyone else. Albania’s Muslim population was, for Kriz nothing but future proselytes. But time and again, he heard God’s word emerging from Albanian Muslim mouths. This was a hard lesson, that “we” have no exclusive claim on holy wisdom. The conflict between his learned expectations and God’s way left him burned out early.
From there, Kriz spent time as unofficial campus chaplain at Portland’s Reed College, sometimes called America’s least religious college, before moving into urban missions. Time and again, his story turns on the conflict between his learned American Christian culture, and God’s true movement in the world. Like me, Kriz struggles to separate wheat from tares in his life. And in so doing, he calls me to greater diligence in mine.
We cannot have Christianity without Christian culture. Culture is the system of agreements and shorthands that let us communicate with one another. But too often, we forget that we create culture ourselves, laying it over Scriptural teachings. Like the Pharisees whom Jesus attacked so vigorously, we treat man-made rules as holy and inviolable. And in so doing, we miss “the least of these” whom Christ came to save.
Thus, Kriz thought he lost his faith. But time and again, God chose outsiders to remind him he only lost his culture. A Muslim grandmother, a Jewish pubgoer, an agnostic drifter, Portland’s gay mayor—all intrude into Kriz’s self-induced existential dramas, reminding him that God is so much bigger than his learned habits. Faith is so much more than the answers we memorize. Sometimes faith means asking honest questions.
Kriz unpacks a complex and sometimes contradictory faith journey, one that repeatedly reminds him that wisdom does not come with a degree, or intelligence with status. He sets out to teach, but learns the greatest lessons. He sees ways that life proves more important than dogma. Parables as intense as any from the Gospels unfold in the little ways people touch each other’s lives. God walks close, even when Kriz goes his own willful way.
I could wish Kriz was as forthright in his own suffering as in the lessons others teach him. Twice, when he felt adrift in Albania and again when he was coarsely ejected from Reed, he admits his own bad behavior, but only in sweeping generalizations. While I don’t want theatrical Augustinian breast-beating, I would like more detail. What does it mean for an American Christian to lose faith on foreign soil?
That objection notwithstanding, Kriz’s faith memoir gives me hope that God can speak in any life, if we have the courage to listen. He reminds me that God’s life is not in knowing, but in living. And if as strong a man as Kriz has the grace to learn from God’s world, so can I.