Friday, August 4, 2017

Dollar Store Jesus

Mitch Kruse with D.J. Williams, Street Smarts From Proverbs: How to Navigate Through Conflict to Community

The other day I reviewed a business book that had an underlying moral message. This time, it goes the other way: I have a Christian book that’s essentially an encomium to capitalism. And I have the same basic responses to both: they’re okay, provided you don’t push either to their logical extremes. Tempered with moderation and accountability, either could be uplifting and game-changing; unmoored from community, either could lead to self-sanctification and arrogance.

Reverend Mitch Kruse paid for his seminary education through proceeds from selling his Internet start-up to eBay. This duality, the transition from capitalist self-marketing to Christian humility, inflects this, his second book. He has a biblically solid exegesis, based on a fairly consistent conservative evangelical read of Proverbs and, to a lesser degree, other Scripture. But the emphasis is very first person singular. It’s about I, me, my relationship with God… which isn’t what Proverbs is about.

Kruse believes monthly rereadings of Proverbs will instruct open students in judgement, discretion, and restraint. This, for Kruse, makes a working definition of “wisdom,” a form of thinking in which faithful believers sublimate their human reason to God’s will. Because Proverbs has thirty-one chapters, reading one per day will increase opportunities for learning and self-correction. Through repetition, devoted readers will acquire the habits of right thinking and self-control which Proverbs makes available to open minds.

Pursuing this goal, Kruse is a master maker of lists and other mnemonic devices. The largest part of this book delves into what Kruse calls the Twelve Words, important themes which recur in Proverbs and define its overarching goal, Wisdom. These include Righteousness, Justice, Discipline, and Learning— words which mean something different in Biblical contexts than in conversational English. Kruse defines these terms using a mix of scholarship and anecdote, in the classic sermonist style.

Mitch Kruse
My problem isn’t Kruse’s writing. He hews to a familiar homiletic style which I assume Christian writers must learn in seminary, because it recurs regularly. I might wish Kruse broke from a mold I find boring in Christian pop nonfiction, because I’ve seen it so often that my eyes skim the page, but that’s my personal problem. Rather, his choice of Proverbs, probably the most first-person-singular book of the Bible, leaves me scratching my head.

Proverbs is part of what Hebrew scholars call Wisdom Literature, four books (seven in the Septuagint, called the Catholic Apocrypha) that differ from other Biblical books. Neither history, like the Torah, nor exhortations of the people, like the Prophets, Wisdom Literature mostly involves gnomic poems and sayings restraint, humility, and godliness. Unlike most Hebrew Scripture, Proverbs isn’t intended for the whole people; it’s specifically for kings or (like the case of Ecclesiastes) sons of kings.

That’s why mainline liturgical churches often avoid Proverbs in pulpit ministry. We can’t agree on how it applies to most believers today. We consider it inspired, and like all scripture, useful for instruction. But to call it controversial is underselling the situation. Kruse often has to perform theological gymnastics to make Proverbs yield the communitarian thesis he promises in his title, an approach that, I’ve noticed, doesn’t much include direct citations from Scripture, including Proverbs.

Thus we’re faced with a Christian book that seldom cites the principal Christian source, a communitarian book about hierarchies, a book about Hebrew Scripture that largely eschews the Hebrew prophetic tradition. Kruse trades primarily in contradictions, which I think even he doesn’t always see. His most recurring theme holds that Christians need to subjugate their will and intellect to God’s, yet h almost entirely emphasizes individual salvation, not what God would have us actually do.

My biggest problem turns on Kruse’s distribution of rewards. His anecdotes generally follow a reliable pattern: a person Kruse knows, or knows about, ventures into willfulness and self-seeking, which ends badly. (He particularly dreads substance abuse.) That person rediscovers God’s purpose, surrenders to divine will, and gets restored. This often ends with some earthly reward: a university degree and a family, lucrative speaking gigs, media stardom. Heavenly salvation, in Kruse’s theology, generally brings earthly rewards.

Kruse never says anything I find altogether wrong. He often shares meaningful, uplifting, theologically sound precepts. But with his emphasis on individual salvation and the journey from poverty to riches, literal or metaphorical, he’s essentially sharing a Christianized Horatio Alger story. Though I often like Kruse’s message, I cannot escape the reality that, throughout, he never stops thinking like a businessman. Christianity is, for Kruse, a transaction, where the faithful hope to make a profit.

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