Book Review – Foolishness to the Greeks (Lesslie Newbigin)

Lesslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1986), 150 pages.

For those who have followed this blog for any length of time, this next paragraph is old hat, but I am an inveterate learner. For the overwhelming majority of my life that has meant the pursuit of some level of education – college, graduate school, doctoral degree in ministry. Everything I learn just teaches me that there is something else out there to learn, that I have just scooped a thimble full out of the all-encompassing ocean of knowledge. Alas, I am out of money and, quite frankly, brain power to pursue another formal degree, so I satiate my hunger for learning by reading books. One author that I just recently discovered (although, I had been introduced to him in a round-a-bout way some years ago) is Lesslie Newbigin. For most contemporary theologians, Newbigin’s name is well known. For me, reading him is almost a breath of fresh air. He never ceases to astound me. Foolishness to the Greeks is, I believe, the third book of Newbigin’s that I have read.

Simply stated and I hope without over-stating the thought, Foolishness to the Greeks is perhaps the briefest, yet finest expose of western culture that I have read (and I have read many). I think maybe I know the answer to my own question, but I simply cannot understand why Newbigin was not required reading for my Doctor of Ministry courses in post-modern theology. (The answer is, I am guessing that the professors assumed we were all familiar with Newbigin, and therefore did not think it necessary for us to include him in our reading. A very wrong assumption for me, and having Newbigin as background would have been invaluable as we were assigned so much Brian McLaren, et.al., in our course work.) If you are looking for a brief, very readable, and penetrating examination of where we are today as a culture and as a church confronting that culture, this little volume would be my go-to choice.

Newbigin is, in addition to being a deep-thinking theologian, what I would consider to be a true renaissance man – in the sense that he is just as equally adept at discussing philosophy and science as he is theology. I am amazed at the depth of his reading – and of his comprehension of extremely complex cultural issues. As has been said of so many other thinkers, if I had just half of his brain I would be exponentially smarter than I am. (Twice as smart just does not quite cover it.) Newbigin returns to the very cradle of our culture to examine the “plausibility structures” that have created who we are and why we think the way we do. Working not only with influential philosophers, but also intimately with leading scientific minds, Newbigin lays bare the skeleton that frames our “common” way of thinking. And, as staring at a bare skeleton can sometimes be disarming (pardon the pun), so having the bare elements of our culture revealed can be uncomfortable.

As just a brief overview, Newbigin begins with the question, What would it be like if we attempted to address this modern, western culture as a missionary? How would we analyze it? What forces have created this culture? Why is the message of the gospel so strange, in fact, so repugnant to a culture that, at least on the surface, continues to refer to itself as “Christian”? Why is the gospel still as much “foolishness to the Greeks” today as it was in the days of the apostle Paul? The book is divided into six chapters (the book is actually an expansion of a series of lectures, so there is no expansive wasting of words. The chapters are brief, but as they were previously given orally, they are loaded. I like that – excessive wordiness kills many an otherwise fine book!) Newbigin writes for the reader in mind – he uses simple clues (1, 2, 3, a, b, c) and repeats himself efficiently but not obnoxiously. The chapters build on themselves, and if the reader gets lost it only takes a turn of a page or two to get back on track. For simple minds such as mine, this is a genuine benefit.

While reading this book one question kept coming up in my mind, “How could a book with a 1986 publication date be so relevant over three decades later?” I guess, in answer, that our culture has not changed direction during those three decades, but the cracks and fissures that Newbigin identified in the late 20th century have become gaping chasms in the early 21st century, so I have no hesitation but to recommend the contents of this book for anyone who is searching for an answer to the challenges that the contemporary church faces.

This little volume is not just about theory, however. Newbigin was a missionary and a high-church leader, and he writes not just with questions or analysis in mind, but always with answers. True to form, in the final chapter he provides seven “essential” responses for the church to engage if it is going to be effective in confronting this “post-enlightenment” and “post-Christian” culture.

I have recently read where Newbigin is considered by many to be the father (or at least significant promoter) of the missional church movement, or the Mission Dei movement. If so, I think he has been co-opted by that movement. If that is true I am either seriously misreading Newbigin, or I am seriously misreading the missional church people (especially those who remain connected to the Churches of Christ). I would recommend, if you have hitherto been uncomfortable about picking up Newbigin because of this presumed association, that you put that idea out of your mind and read Newbigin for yourself. I am so grateful that I was able to put aside this “guilt by association” and consider Newbigin on his own merits.

OBNOXIOUS, BUT SEEMINGLY NECESSARY CAUTION: I do not agree with everything Newbigin says or writes. He comes from a theological tradition that I find to be problematic. He makes assertions that I do not believe are valid, at least biblically speaking. As a mature Christian I hope that I can recommend a book without claiming that the author to be impeccable, or being blamed for his (or her, for that matter) errors.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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