Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (pt. 4)

[A little background here – after I posted my first review of Andrew Root’s book, Baker Academic “tweeted” a link to it. I was mortified. It’s one thing to opine about someone’s work if you are, like, 99.999% sure the author will never read your critique. With the surprise advertisement, I was suddenly faced with the fact that Dr. Root might read my review. He did. And he responded. In some of the most gracious words imaginable, no less. I emailed back and forth with him a couple of times, and I am deeply touched by his willingness to discuss his book, and what he saw as legitimate critiques that I made. His correspondence made my week.]

Okay, its been a while in coming, but I think I am finally ready to share my last (maybe, hopefully) review of Andrew Root’s book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age. As I have hopefully already made clear, this book has deeply cut into what I consider to be “faith development,” and I eagerly await the next two volumes in this series. If you have not read my earlier posts, the bottom line is I highly recommend this book – even with the caveat that there is some technical language used, so parts of the book may be daunting.

Now I want to share my main “quibble” with the book. I have a real hesitancy in doing this for one huge reason. My quibble is not so much with something Root said, but with what he did not say. My hesitancy is that I have a real issue with people criticizing what does not exist in a work. I have two master’s degrees and a doctorate, and the one thing that always irritated me the most in getting a graded paper back was when the professor said something like, “…but you did not address ‘x'” (what ever ‘x’ might have  been.) The one time I really deserved this critique was in my Master of Divinity comprehensive exams. I totally forgot to answer half a question. I thought I was going to get “pass plus” and I think I got a pass-minus. Oops.

In regard to Dr. Root’s book, the essence of what he identifies as “faith” centers in the Pauline expression, “in Christ.” My ears perked up. He went on to discuss Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, and the transformation that took place in Saul’s life. I grew more interested. Root emphatically defended his contention that faith in the New Testament occurs when a person symbolically dies, has someone come and minister the death of Christ to them, and then comes to a new life consisting in service and ministry to others. I was totally captivated. And, with bated breath, I kept turning pages waiting for the ultimate hammer to fall – the hammer that would locate this death, burial, and resurrection to a new life in the physical moment of baptism.

It never fell.

And, as I mentioned above, it is not appropriate to overly critique the omission of a topic in someone’s else’s work – so in terms of reviewing Faith Formation in a Secular Age, I will leave you with this simple observation. The omission in no way minimizes the value of this book – I recommend it highly. But – if the book had been mine to write, this is the section I would add regarding baptism.

Ever since the days of Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, the heirs of the Restoration Movement (especially the Churches of Christ) have been accused of overly emphasizing the physical and spiritual act of baptism. Too many times, I fear, this accusation has been all too accurate. Maybe “overly emphasizing” is overly critical, but we have taken one aspect of conversion and, hopefully not to generalize too much, have turned it into the only aspect of conversion. Just as an example, when someone comes to one of our congregations and seeks membership, the primary question asked of them is not, “do you have the gifts of the Spirit active in your life?” but, “have you been baptized?” (And often included in that question, “. . . by the right person in the right church. . . “)

The end result of this emphasis is that now two hundred years (give or take a few) from the writings of Stone and Campbell, I honestly believe that many members of the Churches of Christ have a totally sacramental view of baptism. Conversion and transformation have been replaced with a magical view of baptism that is utterly absent from the New Testament. What I hear from all too many members of the Church is a curious mixture of evangelicalism (you must be ‘born again’) and Roman Catholicism (it’s just ‘one and done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out’). Talk about your unholy marriages.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the practice of baptism in so many churches. We say that we do not believe in infant baptism, that we are “credo-baptists,” that we only baptize believing adults, or, at the very least, those who have reached the “age of accountability.” [WOULD SOMEONE PLEASE SHOW ME WHERE THAT PHRASE IS USED IN THE NEW TESTAMENT?] And, yet, I see and hear of younger and younger children being baptized – as young as 8 or 9, in some cases probably younger.

We do not allow adolescents to drive until they reach an age twice what we gloriously accept as a “believing adult.” We do not allow anyone to join the military until a couple of years past that. We do not allow anyone to purchase or legally consume alcohol until a couple of years past that. Yet, we trumpet the decision of a child barely into elementary school as a great transformation of life and character. And, we come up with some of the most specious arguments to defend that practice. “But, they believe in Christ.” Um, yeah, so do the demons, according to James 2:19, and it does them no good. “But, what happens if we tell them ‘no’ and they leave the church?” Well, why do we tell our children they can’t have a driver’s license until a  certain age, that they cannot marry until a certain age, that they cannot join the military or drink a beer until a certain age? Why does our judicial system protect minors who are not capable of making adult decisions and being responsible for those decisions until they reach a certain age? And, just to respond to an absurd argument with one equally absurd, what happens if we DO baptize them and then they leave the church – as is happening by the hundreds if not thousands? What then? Do we become crypto-Calvinists and whisper, “Once saved, always saved” as our young adults stream out the back door?

[If you have never sat and answered the anguished questions of one who was baptized as an infant/child, and had them question their faith, their beliefs, their actions, then I suggest that you do sometime. You will not be so quick to dismiss their hopelessness. If they ask for baptism again they feel like they are rejecting the approval of their loved ones years ago. But to continue on living in the doubts and fears of realizing they simply “got wet” in order to please parents or to succumb to peer pressure is spiritually paralyzing.]

You see, as a group of biblical reformers – whose sincere and genuine desire was to restore baptism to a foundational place in the conversion process – we have come full circle to simply practicing baptism as a quaint “right of passage” that doubles as an entry into the membership of a congregation and provides legitimacy to partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Which brings me right back to Dr. Root’s book. If he is correct in his definition of faith (and I think that if not fully correct, his view points us in a bright and helpful direction), then we must, repeat must, restore the biblical view of baptism to that picture of faith. And, I emphasize this, not just as a brief, momentary photo opportunity, but as a life-long, unending commitment to following in the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

After examining Saul of Tarsus’ conversion in Acts 9, the passage that was most lacking in Dr. Root’s book is Romans 6:1-14. But, hear me on this – it has also been lacking in my preaching and in my life as well. I too have fallen into the “one-and-done, baptized you’re in, unwashed you’re out” mentality. I too have been caught up in the baptism of infant/children. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

I think it is time, past time actually, that the heirs of the Restoration Movement do some actual restoring again. I think we need to restore baptism to its rightful place, not just in the event of a new birth, but in Root’s words, to a lifelong commitment to the death of Jesus – as lived out in service and ministry to others.

In other words, we need to restore the biblical view of faith back into our vocabulary and our practice.

Book Review: Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (pt.3)

Sometimes really smart people do strange things. And then, because they are smart, other people follow them in that strangeness. Pretty soon you have a whole bunch of really smart people doing strange things, not because they really want to, or even because they have really thought about it, but because following the first really smart person seemed so, well, smart. It is called “group think,” and sometimes that strange thing that the first person thought up is just simply innocent and inconsequential, and sometimes it can be malevolent and have some really nasty results.

For years now, maybe even generations, people have been asking the question, “how do we instill faith in our children, indeed, how can we instill faith in anyone?” Over the past few years that question has reached a fever pitch because of the (almost) incessant reporting of how many young people are leaving the church, and how many people now report that their religious affiliation is “none.” They claim to be spiritual, but just not religious. Devoted church members are right to be concerned, and the providing answers to stop the exodus of these individuals is a growth industry within Christian journalism.

But, have you noticed something deeply troubling about all the answers? I did not – until I read Andrew Root’s book, Faith Formation in a Secular Age.

No one asks the question, What is faith?

Here we have a massive group think going on because some smart person, actually many smart persons, thought up a solution to why people are losing their faith, and dozens of others have chimed in about why it is occurring and what can be done about it.

And no one, at least to my knowledge, has bothered to sit down and ask that very simple, and fundamental, question. It seems that if we are going to try to form something, we had better be certain of what it is that we are trying to form.

This is why I think Root’s book is so critical at this time, and agree with him or not, at least he has gone back to the core issue. If we do not have a certain grasp on what we are trying to accomplish, I dare say we are never going to be very successful in accomplishing it.

In my own experience, whenever faith is discussed there is an automatic, almost knee-jerk, response to quote Hebrews 11:1 as the definitive answer to the definition of faith, and then move on without much deeper thought. That is, faith is an mental assent, an agreement to a concept or a doctrine. We can’t see it or touch it or taste it, but we believe it, therefore we have faith. While not ever specifically addressing Hebrews 11:1, Root basically identifies this understanding as actually being part of the problem – not that the text is a problem, but our secular understanding of Hebrews 11:1 is the problem.

I am going to simplify tremendously here – and summarize in just a few words what Root does in several chapters – but Root proposes that the core issue we have in forming faith is that all we attempt to do, and all we do if we are successful, is convince people to accept a doctrine or set of doctrines; we really do not form faith. I see this so clearly within the Churches of Christ. We teach someone to accept a set of beliefs about the church, or certain practices of the church, and if they agree with us we baptize them and assert that they have been “converted” from denominationalism or from the world or from whatever, and a few years later they are gone. We shrug our shoulders and say, “well, something must have happened to have made them lose their faith.” No – they had their minds changed, just like we changed their minds before we baptized them. We did not form faith in them, we just made them to be “Church of Christers” for a brief period of time (and, I hate that moniker with a passion that approaches psychosis).

I heard it expressed like this years ago – and the truth of this aphorism is damning – “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.”

After a thorough and rather ruthless examination of our secular age (and what has created it) in chapters 1-6, and after a transition in chapter 7 (which, by the way, is critical to understanding the rest of the book), Root goes on in chapters 8-11 to unpack this fundamental question – what is faith? He does not resort to proof-texting Hebrews 11:1, but rather turns to the apostle Paul and Paul’s pregnant phrase, “in Christ.”

In the briefest of summary – Root’s exploration and explanation of faith is thoroughly Pauline. The core of Root’s understanding of faith is found in Acts 9 – the story of Saul of Tarsus conversion to Christ. From that event Root goes on to examine Paul’s ministry, and through that ministry to define the terminology that Paul uses in his letters. (Aside here – his discussion of Philippians 2:5-11 blew me away – and opened up an entirely new vision of the self-emptying of Christ.) Now, as I did in my first review, I will warn you that Root uses technical theological terminology that many may not be familiar with, and if not, will find confusing (kenosis, hypostasis, theosis, among others). Root demonstrates that faith is formed  through experiencing death, and allowing the death of Christ to transform that death into a new life – a life of service and ministry. Faith is formed when someone (or maybe many someones) minister the death of Christ to us, so that, by our death we become “little Christs” through the death of Christ, and as a result we minister that death to others.

As I have said before – it is a deep argument, skillfully presented, and worthy of serious study and reflection. I cannot – and I probably should not have even attempted – to summarize it in one paragraph. You may not agree with it. But I will say this with the seriousness of a broken leg (something I know about all too well) – if you disagree with Root you had better have your “i’s” dotted and your “t’s” crossed, because Root’s argument is serious, and at least in my humble opinion, 99% correct. I will save my major quibble with Root for tomorrow.

As I have done in each of these “reviews,” I urge you to purchase, to read, and to study this book. It has reminded me of some things that I have been taught in the past (although not put together in the package that Root does), it provides a philosophical understanding of our “secular age” that I found to be gripping, and his presentation of what it means to have faith, and therefore to form faith, was convicting, and to be perfectly honest, embarrassing.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age – Andrew Root (Pt. 2)

I want to “extend and revise my remarks” regarding Andrew Root’s challenging work, Faith Formation in a Secular Age. For my initial response, see the previous review Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Andrew Root)

I suggested at the beginning of that review that, as I was reading this work, I could not help but feel like I had been there before, I guess sort of a deja vu moment. More than once after digesting some of Root’s conclusions, I thought, “Reading this book is like returning to a place I have never been before.” Then something hit me – I had been somewhere close before, but not exactly in the same place. Let me explain.

Many years ago three professors within the family of the Churches of Christ created a minor firestorm with the publication of a deceptively short book, The Worldly Church: A Call for Biblical Renewal (C. Leonard Allen, Richard T. Hughes, Michael R. Weed, ACU Press, 2nd ed. 1991, 107 pages). While so much of the book needs to be reviewed here, just a couple of quotations will suffice:

We see the church floundering between two equally disastrous paths. On the one hand are those who advocate a rationalistic orthodoxy which arrogantly imposes its own limited scheme upon the Bible and places human restrictions upon God. On the other hand are those who are increasingly attracted by a generic Protestant pietism – sprinkled generously with therapeutic terminology – which eagerly caters to the shifting whims of the surrounding society. We have little sympathy with either of these secularizing options. We plead for a return to our historic roots in the central message of the Bible. (p. x)

We seek to reaffirm the great biblical truth that authentic Christianity stems from faith in God, not self; from worship of God, not self; from reliance on God’s power, not on the power of self; and from living out Christ’s teaching that ‘whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it’ (Lk. 17:33) (p. 3)

The secular church’s adaptation to modernity, and particularly its wholesale adoption of the utility principle, leads directly to fundamental theological problems. The most far-reaching of these is a loss of the sense of transcendence. (p. 17)

When Christians forget who they are and who they are called to be, no amount of technique or programming will restore lost integrity. The church does not simply need more experts in communication, counseling, or church growth. It does not need more leaders who are clever and successful. But it desperately needs more leaders who are wise and faithful to the crucified one. (p. 22)

I really could go on for quite some time, but these themes are precisely what Root analyzes in Faith Formation. In going back to Worldly Church, I am struck by the phrases, “therapeutic terminology,” “secularizing options,” “authentic Christianity,” “transcendence,” and “faithful to the crucified one.” You do not even have to be a careful reader of Root’s work to hear those concerns being raised again and again. Now, I grant you that the audience to whom Allen, Hughes and Weed wrote is much more narrowly defined than the audience to whom Root addresses, but I just cannot get past the similarity in themes, and in the underlying similarity in the solution(s) they present.

There are differences in the two works, to be sure. For one thing, Allen, Hughes and Weed are primarily historical theologians, and, from my perspective anyway, Root is a philosophical theologian. What I mean is that, while Allen, Hughes and Weed reference some non-theological works, they do not attempt to locate the problem of “modernity” in anything close to the precision that Root is able to do. Root provides in his first 6 chapters the equivalent of a semester of university studies in a survey of the philosophical underpinnings of modern thought. (Aside here – the footnotes Root incorporates are prodigious, and provide an additional wealth of material and thoughts to consider, in addition to his main line of argumentation). The two works converge at a central point, however – the cross of Christ, and, I might add as a second point of convergence, the transcendence of God.

C. Leonard Allen and Richard Hughes followed The Worldly Church with a number of other works, each fleshing out in some greater degree a specific emphasis that they considered to be critical for the Churches of Christ. Allen called for the church to return to a cruciform nature. Hughes, for his part, called on the church to return to its apocalyptic heritage – as viewed primarily in the writings of Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb. (Allen also shares in this call to an apocalyptic worldview). Andrew Root has studied and written about the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who, in his own way, offered an apocalyptic vision of what the church is called to be (although, perhaps, not in the same terminology that Stone or Lipscomb would use).

So, in what can only be described as a very powerful, but in some ways very discomforting way, so many threads of my Christian journey have met in a mighty confluence of parallel themes. Going back 200 years to Stone, about 125 years to Lipscomb, about 75 years to Bonhoeffer, and now to my contemporaries Allen, Hughes, Weed – and now Root – I keep hearing the same voices, the same concerns, the same “prophetic” response. The church is caught – in fact always seems to be caught – in a vortex of secularizing powers that batter from without and corrupt from within. The answer today, which appears to have been the answer for Stone and for Lipscomb and for Bonhoeffer, is not more adept analyzing of the contemporary world so that the church can copy what is successful, but a total and unrelenting return to the basics of discipleship in Christ. Stone, Lipscomb, and Bonhoeffer might have expressed it differently, but the core concept is what Root identifies as an emphasis on biblical faith.

I have much more to say about Root’s book – it has utterly captivated my imagination. But I just had to unload this particular observation first. I apologize if it has been far too personal, but maybe will help explain some later remarks I make about Andrew Root’s powerful study.

Book Review – Faith Formation in a Secular Age (Andrew Root)

Andrew Root, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 211 pages.

I was first introduced to Andrew Root through his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer as youth worker. I had seen several references to this book after reading his work on Bonhoeffer, and so I thought I would give it a read (after all, if someone writes on Bonhoeffer, they can’t be all bad, right?). I can honestly say that from a philosophical/theological perspective, it has been a long, long, time since I have had my foundations as shaken as they have been by this book – if ever. But I mean this in a good way – it was a constructive shaking, and in a strange sort of way, it was also re-affirming for some ideas and conclusions that have been latent, but that I have not had the mental acuity to put into concrete expression.

This post will not be all that I have to say about Root’s book – it is just too deep for one little review. What I intend to do here is to just give a brief overview, add some reflective comments, and suggest that I will be looking at a number of Root’s conclusions in greater depth in later posts.

In summary, Root asks one question, “How can we form faith in a secular age,” but in so doing he actually raises a far more basic question – “What is faith?” You might think that is a silly question, because everyone knows what faith is. But for Root (and I think he is spot-on correct here), what we have come to accept as “faith” is really nothing more than assent to a doctrine or set of doctrines. This understanding has had all kinds of negative effects on the church, and is the primary reason why the church is so frantic to discover why so many people are leaving “faith” and to discover what to do to reverse the exodus.

Faith Formation in a Secular Age is divided into two main sections: Part One (chapters 1-6) is basically a philosophical explanation of how the culture and the church have arrived at the place where we stand – the “secular age.” Part Two then addresses how faith can be formed in that secular age, and more fundamentally, addresses the content of what we call “faith.”

I will say with no hesitation that this is NOT an easy book  to read unless you are conversant with (1) philosophical terminology and (2) academic theological terminology. While I would never discourage anyone from purchasing a book, I have to be honest and say that unless you are willing to exercise some synapses and look up some technical vocabulary, this book might be above the head of many readers. I’m pretty sure Root lost me in all the verbiage, and that is unfortunate – this book needs to be read at the non-specialist level, and it just comes across as more of a university level (or maybe even graduate level) philosophical/theological work.

With that caveat in place, the real genius of this book is that Root traces the development of our “secular” world and puts his finger squarely on a problem that has bedeviled the church for decades – the rise of our infatuation with “youth” and “youthfulness.” He openly confesses that he is following the writing of a philosopher whose work Root believes is the “first philosophical book written in the twenty-first century that will be read in the twenty-second” (p. x). Part one is, hopefully not to be too dramatic, a devastating examination of our infatuation with youth, the youth culture, and how that fascination has utterly changed the teaching and behavior of the church. I would suggest that part one is the most easily understandable section of the book, and is worth the price of the book by itself.

In part two, Root then tackles the main question he raises (what is faith), and suggests there is a way for the church to form that faith in this secular age. It is in chapter 7, however, that the real heavy lifting of the book begins (at least for me – others may have different opinions). In chapter 7, Root identifies three different levels, or modes, of secularity. The rest of the book is difficult if not impossible to understand if you miss, or misunderstand, these three modes of secularity. I cannot begin to explain them here (I will discuss chapter 7 and its importance in a later post) but suffice it to say that the “secular” age in which we live today is one that eliminates the possibility of any experience with a transcendent being – God, as a personal being, is simply eliminated from the picture. Faith, in Root’s understanding, is the experience of this transcendent being in our lives, and therefore to form faith in this secular age we must open ourselves up to the indwelling presence of this transcendent God. The key for Root is the apostle Paul’s phrase “in Christ.” Root’s development of the importance of this expression, and the relationship of this concept to faith formation, is deep, and his terminology frequently gets in the way, but I will suggest that Root is on to something here – and his conclusions make far, far more sense to me than the other “solutions” to the faith problem that I have seen.

As with any book that is this heavily philosophical, and theological, I do have some serious concerns. For me, the biggest problem lies in the final two chapters of the book where Root attempts to align his conclusions with the (primarily) Lutheran concept of “faith only.” My issues with this attempt are two: (1) Paul never says “faith only” – it is a purely Lutheran creation, and (2) Root seems to go out of his way to “reconstruct” common Lutheran understanding, and, not being a Lutheran scholar, I am just not convinced he is entirely successful.

I will have much more to say about this particular issue, but the most glaring failure of this book is Root’s (intentional?) refusal to acknowledge one of Paul’s most profound emphases – that of the necessity of baptism for his understanding of faith. I kept waiting for Root to discuss this point and it just never comes. I think Root is basically correct in his understanding of faith in Paul’s thought, but by neglecting the event of baptism he short-circuits his entire argument. In short, Root is just entirely too Lutheran to admit that baptism is critical for the formation of faith – even as he as gone to such great lengths to prove that faith for Paul is being “in Christ.” The omission just boggled my mind.

It is not often that I find a sentence at the end of a book that serves as one of the greatest in the book, and as an advertisement for the purchase of the book. However, I will close the “review” section of this post with just one such quote from Root – and one that I hope will spur you to consider buying, reading, and even studying this book:

The church will never be able to convert an atheist through argumentation but can only invite that person to experience faith by experiencing the action of ministry. (p. 210-211).

If you are a minister, elder, youth leader, or other church leader, you owe it to yourself to buy this book and invest in some time to read it. As I said above, it will not be the easiest book you read this year – but it may be the most significant! You will not agree with everything Root says – I never agree with everything an author says. But, and I say this cautiously, you will learn more about the culture in which you live and will be challenged to review some of your previously held beliefs, more by this book than perhaps any you might read this coming year.

P.S. – This is volume one in a three volume “trilogy” – and the second volume is in the pipeline for delivery some time this year, I believe. I look forward to reading it as well.