Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in a Dangerous Time by Brian Walsh

1630879436I came across this book while viewing N.T. Wright’s Udemy course called Worldviews, the Bible, and the Believer. This book was first published in 1992 and was republished in 2014 with a postscript added in responses to the world change over the gap of 22 years. This book has received quite a mix of reactions. Some people love it while some find it quite disappointing. I think I kind of understand both types of response. Let me first give my two cents on why some may find the book dull:

First, this book, although short, is not an easy-read for general readers like me. Written with an academic tone, I did occasionally find it – mostly chapter three – dry to read. Second, some may find Walsh not “neutral” enough in this book in terms of politics. His critique of political parties such as the Bush Administration can get quite personal at times. But hey, this is his book, he surely is entitled to his views! Third, his critique of Fukuyama is lengthy in a way that blows the book out of portion. One would expect this critique to be an illustration to support his thesis but somehow, the critique itself ends up like the main course. Fourth, some believers may find it offensive (not me) that Walsh compares songwriter Cockburn and his songs to Jeremiah and his prophetic words. Fifth, at times, perhaps because of his long critique on political parties and social systems, Walsh seems to give readers an impression that he has his hope set on reconstructing the world by human effort (sort of on the edge of a social gospel) even though he did say that the Kingdom of God, meaning the restoration of creation, is not something we produce (pg. 94). Or, perhaps Walsh is a post-millennialist?

Nevertheless, notwithstanding the above, I still find the book worth reading with the following reasons:

  1. Walsh’s emphasis on our primary identities being image-bearers. One cannot deny the fact that many presentations of the gospel today begin with Genesis 3. Walsh nails it when he says we live in an image-conscious society just like the 6th century babylonians, yet just as the Israelites in those days, our experience of exile “cannot define reality for us”. Walsh also states beautifully that both female and male are equal co-partners and gardeners who function as stewards of creation (pg. 22). Work is therefore a form of worship where we serve our neighbour with stewardly care of creation.
  1. Walsh presents the concept of human having dominion over creation in a refreshing way. To have dominion over the creation, according to Walsh, means to follow the one we call Domine: Lord. To have dominion means ”to pick up the cross and follow Him” ; “to lay down one’s life for that which we have dominion over”; “to sacrifice one’s power and one’s gain for the sake of the other”. 
  1. Walsh pleas for a wake-up call for the Church. “While the Church is fighting among themselves, we are falling into a deeper sleep.” writes Walsh (pg. 30). While our sleep has made us insensitive to the spirits of the age, causing us to live a dualistic life, we have also forgotten the real battle is between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Darkness.
  2. Walsh emphasises the need of lament. Because of our deep sleep, the Church has forgotten how to lament like Jeremiah. To be a prophetic people, we need to lament over the sickness of our society while bringing hope by initiating self-critique and passionate speaking.
  1. Walsh offers sharp criticism towards idolising capitalism, nationalism, scientism, technicism, and economism, etc.
  2. Believe it or not, this is actually my favourite part, and I give Walsh lots of respect for it: Walsh, as a reformed Christian, criticises the “over-intellectualisation of the reformed faith”.  The intellectualisation of the Christian faith “makes professing Christ into a matter of saying ‘I do’ to a system of theological dogmas rather than I do to a bridegroom named Jesus who wants to enter into a relationship of passionate covenant keeping with you and me”. As a result, faith becomes static instead of dynamic, and Christians become reluctant to let reality inform our worldview. This humility is refreshing.
  3. Walsh encourages an active waiting for a miracle, that is, a full redemption of every aspect of our lives. What does an active waiting look like?“If your hope is to be found in a heavenly liar that is totally discontinuous with this earthly existence, then it is not surprising if the way in which that hope is manifest in simply in so-called spiritual exercises like fellowship church-going and personal evangelism. If however one has a hope in a new creation, a restoration of the creational life, then mundane things like buying fields behind enemy lines are powerful symbols of that hope. (92)

That’s it. With a heavy book comes a heavy book review. I will end with the encouraging ending of the postscript,

“Build houses in a culture of homelessness. Plant gardens in polluted and contested soil. Get married in a culture of sexual consumerism. Make commitments in a world where we want to always keep our options open . Multiply in a world of debt. Have children at then of shirty. Seek shalom in a violent world of geo-political conflict and economic disparity. This is Jeremiah’s\s word to the exiles. This is Jeremiah’s subversive word to us. And in this vision we just might see, with Jeremiah, a future with hop. This is what means to work and wait for a miracle. This remains at the heart of a subversive Christianity.” (pg. 124)

Standard

Revise Us Again by Frank Viola

41yhxbaij7l-_sx365_bo1204203200_Revise Us Again was the first Frank Viola book I read. I recently picked it up again because I remembered how much this book had taught me. This book came as a life-saving rope when I felt like a suffocating child who didn’t know how to swim. I was so weary of doing church, because  church has been so hard and everybody doesn’t get along. I thought whenever a group of people who love the Lord gather together, it’s church. But then there are so many labels, divisions, and pressure. Then so much gain, but then loss; so much joy, but then jealousy.

Even if you are not a struggling believer, this book can still edify you. I’ll share a taste of it by putting together here some quotes that have benefitted me greatly,

“Through some believers, He speaks as Prophet. Through others, He speaks as Priest. Still through others, He speaks as Sage.” (pg. 26)

“In addition, because Bill does not use the mystical jargon that fills Chris’s vocabulary, Chris concludes that Bill’s relationship with the Holy Spirit is subnormal. Worse still, Chris may judge Bill to not have the Holy Spirit at all, for if he did (he muses to himself), Bill would agree with him.” (pg. 48)

“Christian leaders have been telling God’s people that they must ‘be like Christ’ for the last six hundred years (at least). The well-known book by Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, was published around 1418.  Some 480 years later, Charles M. Sheldon’s book In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do? was published. Ever since then, Christians have been trying to ‘do what Jesus did.’ But this ‘gospel’ hasn’t worked. The reason? It’s an instance of asking the wrong question. The question is not ‘What would Jesus do?’ I believe it’s ‘What is Jesus Christ doing through me … and through us?’ Jesus made pretty clear that we cannot live the Christian life. Instead, He must live it through us. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5) Notice that Jesus Himself couldn’t live the Christian life without His Father:2 Jesus gave them this answer: ‘I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing.’ (John 5:19) By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent.” (pp. 58-59)

“A large part of the gospel is to be awakened to an indwelling Christ—not as a doctrine or theology, but as a living, breathing Person whose life we can live by.” (pg. 60)

“In short, the goal of the gospel is not to get you out of hell and into heaven, but to get God out of heaven and into you so that He may be displayed visibly and glorified in His creation.” (pg. 61)

“I’ve observed this phenomenon all my Christian life. People express the same experiences differently. This is due to many varied factors, some of which are the person’s temperament, the specific vocabulary of one’s religious tradition, or a specific “effect” they wish to have on those who hear them testify. (Sometimes this isn’t so well motivated.)” (pg. 72)

“Numerous things about the Christian life amaze me. One of them has to do with a phenomenon that has repeated itself throughout church history. I call it ‘being captured by the same spirit you oppose.’” (pg. 85)

“It’s my strong feeling that a genuine revelation of the fullness of Christ will strip you and me of all exclusiveness and sectarianism. And it will demolish an elitist attitude.” (pg. 95)

“Let me pass on a word of advice. If you ever hit a fork in the road with the people with whom you do church (whatever that looks like), there’s one sure way that the Lord can get what He wants. Drop whatever is causing the problem, and let it go into death. There is nothing for us to cling to except the Lord Jesus Christ. Nothing.” (pg. 127)

“Many Christians fear diversity. We all love unity, but we tend toward uniformity. This tendency is most clearly seen in denominationalism. But it exists vibrantly outside of denominational lines as well. Diversity, however, is part of the nature of the body of Christ. It’s also woven into the universe. Look at creation. Look at your physical body. Look at the eternal Trinity who brought both into existence. What do you find? Particularity with unity. Diversity with harmony.  Point: Diversity is a sign of fullness.” (pp. 138-139)

“Point: The church in Ephesus received the deepest and highest revelation of Christ through choice servants of God—Paul, John, Timothy, Titus, Apollos, etc. And yet, as the New Testament closes, we discover that the church in Ephesus was corrected by the Lord for leaving her first love (Rev. 2:1–4). What happened? If experience has taught me anything, I would guess that they simply stopped pursuing Him. They got stuck. They clung to the Christ they had been given by the greatest servants of God, and they stopped there. To put it another way, their Christ was too small!” (pg. 143)

“Embracing the gospel of libertinism or the gospel of legalism will tether you to the flesh. The fruit of libertinism is the defiling acts of the flesh. On another branch, but just as deadly, the fruit of legalism is the self-righteousness of the flesh.  Both gospels produce carnal activity and generate death rather than life. As a result, both clash with the new creation and have no place in the full-hearted gospel of Christ.  Only Paul’s gospel—the glorious gospel of grace, the gospel of Jesus Christ—has the capacity to bring you and me into the freedom that is ours in Christ. And the end of that gospel is the ageless purpose of God for which our Lord burns.” (pg. 145)

This will always be a book that I return to from time to time.

 

Standard

Love That Lasts by Jefferson and Alyssa Bethke

love-that-lastsI received an Advance Reader Copy from the publisher. 

I don’t know if you have watched Jeff Bethke’s My Wedding Toast – How Marriage Is Just a Shadow on YouTube. Go watch if you have not. Anyways, I remember when I did a few years ago, I had a hard time stopping myself from crying. Perhaps I was just a girl too prone to tears. But I was so moved by how excited he was, for not just his wedding with Alyssa, but for the one that is to come. Not that I have been to many weddings, but I indeed have never heard a man in his early 20s speak about marriage so truthfully and beautifully.

And fast forward, we now have this book, Love That Lasts: How We Discovered God’s Better Way for Love, Dating, Marriage, and Sex, from the Bethkes. This book feels like an expansion of that video message based on the journey of Jeff and Alyssa have had over the past years. This book did not make me cry like the video did, yet with its humour, Jeff and Alyssa successfully paints the glorious picture of marriage that is so often missed in our culture marked by loneliness, anxiety, pornography, and hook-ups.

Just as Jeff writes, “We can’t miss the truth found in that beautiful divine and mysterious and glorious moment. That when He created us and all the uniqueness of male and female bodies, He was choosing to communicate something about Himself.” (pg. 27) From Adam and Eve to Christ and the Church, our earthly marriage serves in the end an expression of Him and His love for us. Just as Alyssa writes as well, Jeff, as his husband, while complimenting her, does not complete her, for it is the Lord Jesus who ultimately fills her (pg. 74). As an individual, our true satisfaction comes from the Lord, not our spouse. Or else, it will turn into idolatry.

Perhaps you are someone who is not into reading. Perhaps you have come across many books that give you burdensome rules on dating. Love That Lasts, however, is different. It is an engaging read filled with grace that shows you don’t have to become more spiritual by being less human (borrowing Eugene Peterson here). I’d especially recommend it to high school students and people in their 20s-30s.

Standard

From Sinners To Image-Bearers

I was walking on the street full of people one night and I was thinking to myself, “Who are these people?” Imagine you are doing the same and I ask you to define these people with one noun. What would you say: simply people? human? or perhaps sinners?

Many agree that Christianity today sometimes loses its balance by seeing salvation as the final goal of the gospel while forgetting the fact that the divine story begins with creation and accumulates into resurrection and restoration. And we are often told this phrase again and again, “Love the sinners, hate the sin.” 

Perhaps this does not apply to everyone, but if this entire “sinner” concept dominates my everyday thinking, my motivation for living can only go so far: to save the lost, which is absolutely crucial, yet sometimes it can become quite dry and dull while making us lose the bigger picture.

And I am sure in one way or another, in your life (whether you are a Christian or not), you would have met one who, in the name of saving sinners, act as if he or she is better and higher than the unsaved.

Let’s then pause for a second on Genesis 3 and start back in Genesis 1 first. As we move back to Genesis 1, we are able to relocate the original intended identity of us: image-bearers.

This is not a term that we are given in the middle of the story. In the very beginning, God created men to bear His image (Genesis 1: 26-27).

Think about it. The Church, the corporate new man, the New Jerusalem, is to fully become the dwelling place of God (Revelation 21:3) when the new heaven and new earth comes. Living in this current age does not at all change the fact that we can still manifest a foretaste of this “already but not yet” kingdomthat when we look around at our brothers and sisters, we see, in the word of C.S. Lewis, little Christs, one after another. Take a second to imagine it: what an impact it would make. It is not some bizarre metaphor; it is a reality.

So when you step outside your church gathering and look around the street, visualize what it’d be like when this street is filled with the images of Christ. The potential and capacity of those who are still wandering around to bear the divine image should capture us.

Brian Walsh, in his book Subversive Christianity, says that virtually everyone today are obsessed with their images. It is even more so today with the social media we have: Facebook. Instagram. Snapchat. All emphasise on how people see us, yet whatever image that we want to construct to find security and identity, it never surpasses the beauty and glory of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps it doesn’t work for you, but ever since seeing myself and others as image-bearers or potential image-bearers, I want my everyday living, not just individually, but corporately with the church and my neighbour, to be so filled with Christ that people will say, I want to know this Christ. I want to reflect this Christ. I want to express this Christ. I want to bear the image of this Christ – of course we may fail, but there’s a lifetime supply of grace.

Standard

Grace and Power Go Together

It hits me as I was going through Acts today.

“And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, and great grace was upon them all.” (Acts 4:33)

“And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8)

May we be a people filled with grace and power.

Standard

The Deeper Christian Life Conference 

Having just finished my master degree in London, I spent this past weekend in The Deeper Christian Life Conference (July 28 – July 30, 2017) in Orlando, Florida, before heading back to Hong Kong.

The best time with brothers and sisters are always when it is nothing but Christ who holds us together. Well, this is exactly what happened in this conference. I am beyond thankful to have met all these people of a great diversity in terms of age, race, nationality, social class, and church background, etc. My another similar experience in U.K. can be read here: A Week at The Hookses

The topic of this conference is the Kingdom of God. There are many wonderful teaching from Frank Viola, who has been an important role in my Christian life for a long time. Given the space, I’ll share one thing that has impacted me the most, “Everything that we own, from the Kingdom perspective, should be a part of the body of Christ.” said Frank.

Everything that we own: it does not only limit to your spiritual gift, natural talent, time, but your physical possessions as well. Why? So that there will be no one among us who is needy (Acts 4:34). So that we can enjoy and manifest Christ to the fullest. This is how the early Church lives their life together (take Acts 4:32-37 as an example).

How does it relate to our view of work then? Well, we work not to lay up worldly treasures of ourselves, but to share and to give.

Nevertheless, this is not a rule established to draw us into legalism. Rather, it is His beauty and the vision of the everlasting Kingdom (Daniel 7:14) that captures us into sharing our life in common. As someone who is at her 20s and will eventually work, I thank the Lord for this timely message so that before I enter into work, I will not be enslaved by it, but rather, go into it with a Kingdom mindset. If you think this is unrealistic, let me share with you a real-life story shared by a couple from Tennessee during our group sessions.

This couple lives with other believers in a close-knit community in the same neighbourhood. They do this not just to take care of one another, but to help one another to get out of debt. They begin with one household – helping them to get out of their debts – so that together with this household, they can help the next one to get out of their debts. They live a quiet life working with their own hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12).

When a sister asked, how do you guys do that? The couple simply answered, Christ is the source. As Frank said, when we truly desire Him and His Kingdom, Him and Him alone will become our true provision, enjoyment, and security.

What is even more moving is that, without any pre-planning, nine brothers and sisters got baptised on the second day of the conference. It all started with one sister’s desire and eight others resonated. Most of them had been baptised before but they did it without a proper understanding of its meaning. Some were previously baptised into a legalistic system of fear; some were baptised because of peer pressure. But in their testimonies, they declared that with their baptism, they were also leaving the world system and entering into the Kingdom of God as a new man in Christ. We ended the conference by having breakfast in groups of 3-4, although my group ended up with 6 people. I so miss the Christ in one another, and I look forward seeing them again.

Standard

Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson

51w-2bf5xt9l-_sx323_bo1204203200_The need to eat, meaning to chew and digest, the Scripture is surely different from just reading it as head knowledge. Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book, as clear as its title says, has done an incredible job on expounding this much needed habit.

I loved how Peterson quotes Bonaventure’s statement, “To know much and taste nothing – of what use is that?” Too often, we read, and what we read remains in our brain without entering into our spirit and soul. But as Peterson says, John, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel all “ate” book metaphorically. “This is the kind of reading named by our ancestors as lector divine, often translated ‘spiritual reading’, reading that enters our souls as food enters out stomachs, spreads through our blood, and becomes holiness and love and wisdom.” says Peterson (pg. 4).

To Peterson, Barth was an example who showed that, a writing that is “revelatory and intimate rather than informational and impersonal” must be done by a reading “that is receptive and leisurely instead of standoffish and efficient” (pg. 6). Below are some great insights from Peterson concerning eating the word of God:

On the Importance of the Scripture

Peterson writes, “Christian spirituality is in its entirety rooted in and shaped by the scriptural text. We don’t form out personal spiritual lives out of a random assemblage of favourite texts in combination with individual circumstances; we are formed by the Holy Spirit in accordance with the text of Holy Scripture. God does not put us in charge of forming our personal spiritualities. We grow in accordance with the revealed Word implanted in us by the Spirit.“ (pg. 15)

In other words, we need both the text and the Spirit. We cannot have one without another. Either extreme can lead us to the two dangers proposed by Peterson: on the one hand, we may encounter the Bible as an “intellectual challenge or moral guidance or spiritual uplifts without receiving any revelation from the Lord”. On the other hand, “we may read the Bible without submitting ourselves under the authority of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. “ (pg. 15)

On Bible Being a Grand Narrative

The Bible is one grand story, “a narrative that is immense sprawling and capacious” (pg. 40). Through reading it, we are drawn into the reality of God; we are invited to participate in His story.

But sadly, as observed by Peterson, we live in an “unfortunate time where this grand story has been reduced to mere illustrations, testimonies, or inspirations”. We often understand God as mere information, be it doctrinal, philosophical, or theological even though “our God cannot be reduced to a formula” (pg 41). Meanwhile, some “extract truths to turn them into ‘principles’ that we can use in a variety of settings at our discretion” that often end up as a slogan or motto sitting on the desk (pg 48).

How urgent is it for us to recover the narrative of God’s story?

On Listening

Peterson points out the importance of learning to listen, which include knowing the way it is said – form, and how it is said – content (pg 43). Exegesis, in his word, is “an act of love”: it “loves the one who speaks it enough to want to get the words right” and loves God enough to “stop and listen carefully to what He says” (pg.  55).

On Resurrecting Dead Letters

Words written are dead word, for “the letter kills” (some may argue the “letter” refers to the O.T. law, but in general I agree with Peterson that any written word in the scripture, without being read under the guidance of the Spirit, are dead letters). “All the words written, confined in the books of the world, buried in the libraries of the world, are dead words. But it is not as bad as that: these are not just dead words but dead words awaiting resurrection, for ’the spirit  gives life’ (2 Cor 3:6). “ (pg. 84) Without the Spirit who guides us into all truth, the words are lifeless.

Another reason why our reading should be marked by life is because “our spiritual reading of the Holy Scriptures signals a recognition of an organic union between the word ‘read’ and the word ‘lived’.” (pg. 113)

“Life originates in Word. Word makes Life. There is no word of God that God does not intend to be lived by us.” says Peterson, “All words are capable of being incarnated because all words originate in the Word made flesh.” (pg. 114)

Peterson also marvels at how God decided to reveal Himself through the  “ambiguities of language” despite mathematics is the most precise language we have. “But then,” writes Peterson, “you can’t have ‘I love you’ in algebra.” (pg. 93)

On Pretentious Language

Pride as a result of reading the word is dangerous, “Sometimes we read and take the text to graduate ourselves into a superior class of Christians.” (pg 57). Such an act builds walls and not bridges, “Pretentious language is just a violation of sacred text.” writes Peterson, “We use them to keep others out of our neighbourhood.” (pg. 138)

He also makes an observation which I have experienced many times in my life, that we often defend the word rather than receive, submit to, and pray the word (pg. 140). Personally, I’d even go further to say that many are obsessed over defending the word (or the Word) rather than to express it (or Him). (To avoid confusion: I believe what the “defense” looks like today resemble little to what Paul had in mind.)

On The Message Bible

In this book, Peterson also talks about the formation of The Message. While many love this translation, it is often saddening to see some’s despise or nonchalance towards this work which Peterson had spent ten years on. However, Peterson’s own recount of the journey shows pure humility.

Peterson first translated the book of Galatians, which was later passed on by many and had helped many. Eventually, his friends encouraged him to translate the entire New Testament and then finally the Bible. Initially, he thought this was an impossible task, for he had used two years to translate Galatians. He also believed there were already enough translations and paraphrases out there.

However, Peterson’s editor insisted. Looking back, Peterson believed it’s simply the Holy Spirit doing the work through him. People who do not know this translation and this man often accuse Peterson of twisting the Scripture but here he is, saying that this translation is meant to supplement, “The Message was born out of a specific time in the American culture, and is not meant to replace but rather supplement the other excellent translations.”

There are a few pastoral figures whom I have never met in my lives yet, from reading their written work, watching their interviews, and meeting the people whom they have personally pastored, I can sense nothing but fragrance of Christ filled with grace and humility. Among these is Peterson. Like Russell Moore, I find myself ended up having more highlighted parts than unmarked ones when reading Peterson’s book. I look forward to read more by this now 84-year-old servant of the Lord.

Standard