Book Review – Signs Amid the Rubble (Lesslie Newbigin)

Lesslie Newbigin, Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History, Edited and Introduced by Geoffrey Wainwright, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003), 121 pages.

As I have “reviewed” (my reviews rarely constitute what would properly be called a book review) a number of Newbigin’s books recently, my comments on this book will be much shorter.

This volume was not written by Newbigin, but is rather a collection of speeches that has been collected and edited by Geoffrey Wainwright. In fact, I have discovered that a number of Newbigin’s books originate with speeches that he presented to various missionary meetings. I like this, because I do not get the opportunity to sit in lecture halls anymore, and reading these lectures gives me the opportunity to stretch my “listening” muscles as much as I can through the printed page.

Basically, this book reinforces what I appreciate so much in Newbigin. To wit:

  • Newbigin has the ability, and the courage, to analyze and to call out the weaknesses of our contemporary culture as few authors I know of. In many respects he is ruthless in nailing our hides to the wall. His utter repudiation of the idea of “progress” in these speeches is worth the price of the book. He has the knack of seeing what so few people are able to see, and he has the courage to “call it like it is.” His candor is truly refreshing.
  • Newbigin is relentless in his belief that presenting the gospel as fact, and not opinion, is the only way the church will confront this deteriorating culture. As he states in a number of his speeches throughout a number of books I have read, if there is no purpose to history, if all of this is just one gigantic mistake, then secularism is about the best we can do. But, if there is a point to history, if God will eventually bring all of history to a grand cataclysmic end, then it is only the gospel of Jesus Christ that will save mankind. This gospel does have a political component, but the gospel itself is not political (that is, humans will not usher in the kingdom of God by our human efforts).
  • Being a devoted student of the American Restoration Movement, I cannot help but hear echoes of the apocalypticism of Barton W. Stone and David Lipscomb as opposed to the millennial utopianism of Alexander Campbell. In Newbigin’s observations, the major thrust of the evangelical churches repeats the post-millennial view shared by Campbell (a point ably defended by Richard Hughes), while Newbigin himself paints a more apocalyptic vision, where only the power of God will set things right in this world. To recall Richard Hughes again, it was the loss of Stone’s and Lipscomb’s apocalypticism that has severely stunted the health of the Restoration Movement, and it is strangely reassuring to me to read Newbigin’s comments, knowing that he is writing primarily as a missionary, first in India and later in his life to the thoroughly secular (or pagan) culture of a postmodern England.
  • I read today a passage that explains to me both (a) why some promote Newbigin as the father of the “Missional Church” movement and (b) why those people really have not read Newbigin carefully. Here are two sentences, and note how he deftly suggests the first while in reality denying it:

Today we have all learned that mission is not marginal to the life of the church, but definitive of it, central to its being . . . The church is God’s sending, His mission. (p. 95)

There you have it, the church is God’s mission, God sent the church just as he sent Jesus. The church does not have a mission, it is God’s mission. Nothing could be clearer, right? Except that one sentence later Newbigin says this,

But by the same shift of perspective, mission now often appears to be everything rather than something. (p. 95)

And that is the major argument I have against the “missional church” movement even as it is being promoted within the Churches of Christ. I distinctly remember reading a blog of a young preacher who was so proud of leading his church into be a “missional church” and pointing to their most recent “missional” accomplishment. What was that accomplishment you ask? Cleaning up a stretch of highway near their community. That’s right, God’s mission includes highway beautification. When God’s sending his Son into the world includes picking up trash, that is when the word “mission” loses all of its meaning. Now, mind you, I am not against cleaning up trash. I am certainly not against a church doing so. It can be, and probably is, a great community service project. I just rebel at the thought of using a highway clean-up day as a way of presenting God’s mission to a sin-sick and dying world.

And, so, once again I encourage those who have never read Newbigin to give him a read. I will say this about this particular volume, the editor’s introduction provided much needed biographical information about Newbigin, and explains a little more of Newbigin’s theological background. After reading a number of Newbigin’s books, I wish I had this information much earlier.

Now for the standard, “don’t swallow everything you read in this book” warning. Newbigin comes from a much different theological background than I do, and his Calvinistic leanings do show through here and there. I cannot defend everything he says any more than I can defend the writings of B.W. Stone, David Lipscomb, or Alexander Campbell. I read with care, and I expect others to use their God given intellects as well. I do recommend the purchase and reading of many books, not because the authors are inspired and their words are equal to Paul’s or Peter’s, but because they cause me to think, and because God can use less than perfect men (and women) to present his perfect truth.

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.

Preaching An Offensive Gospel, Without Being Offensive

Yesterday I bemoaned the fact that I sometimes get much healthier instruction and encouragement from authors outside of my faith community than I do from authors who share my specific theological convictions. I do not rejoice in that particular experience. I find it distressing, to say the very least. But, it leads to a question: What is it about their writings that I find so encouraging, that I find lacking in authors/preachers from within the Churches of Christ? It is a fair question.

The issue I mentioned yesterday was that they make an unflinching defense of the gospel of Christ to confront not only their culture – but primarily of their own church community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer did not begin his journey by attacking Adolf Hitler – he was initially only interested in purging National Socialism from the German church (although, confronting Hitler directly was close behind). Lesslie Newbigin did not set out to attack the political system of England – he wanted to wake his church up to the idolatry that it had absorbed (although, you cannot attack idolatry without attacking the idol that inspires it). Os Guinness does not want to re-write the Constitution, he writes primarily to Christians in order to get them to follow the gospel of Christ (although, in so doing, we do have to take a serious look at the humanistic nature of the Constitution).

All three of these authors touch on and hover around a central theme – the gospel of Christ is at its core an offensive gospel. Not hateful, mind you, but offensive, yes.

The gospel is offensive to the modern, western, and in particular, American, culture. In our world the center is the self, the individual. Everything we do magnifies the individual. Life is all about ME! If I want it, I get it, no matter what it costs or how it deprives others of what they want. My personal happiness and my personal welfare eclipses every other concern. I can destroy the earth, I can ruin reputations, I can use derogatory and repugnant language, I can kill the unborn child in my womb, I can even change my biological birth gender – all because I am the king of my life and I can do whatever I want to do that makes me happy and self-fulfilled. To deny me that freedom is the worst crime that a person or a society can commit – it is a denial of my personal, individual, reign over my life.

Contrast that with the gospel. In the kingdom of God the community – the church – is the most important organism, and the individual only gains importance through that community. In the kingdom of God the other comes first, not the self. In the kingdom of God we die to ourselves and live for the other, and in particular, we live for Christ. In the kingdom of God the most important right we own is the right to relinquish all of our rights for the benefit and the promotion of the community. In the kingdom of God responsibility is as critical, if not more critical, than any supposed rights. In the kingdom of God no truths are considered “self-evident” – that is a fiction of the enlightenment. The only way we know truth is through the revelation of God himself. In the kingdom of God the most important symbol is not a flag or a gun or a piece of paper – it is a cross, the symbol of hatred on one side and divine love on the other. In the kingdom of God the only way to win is to lose, and the only way to live is to die. We ascend by climbing lower.

Bonhoeffer, Newbigin and Guinness all preach this gospel. They all make the same point, albeit in different ways and even though their message has been intended for vastly different audiences. It is only through this offensive gospel that a human can know his or her value, and it is only through this gospel that a bent and broken world can be healed. It is tough medicine – in a sense it is a medicine that actually kills the patient before it can restore the patient to a new life.

Exactly what the gospel proclaims in the pages of the New Testament.

So how is what I hear from authors/preachers within the Churches of Christ any different? What do I hear from our spiritual leaders?

  • We cannot tell the millennial generation to grow up and value the body of Christ as the preeminent reality because it might hurt their sense of individuality, and they might leave and go elsewhere.
  • We cannot tell the sexually degenerate or confused that there is one, single immutable truth about sexuality because it might scare them away from the church.
  • We cannot confront a hyper left-leaning or right-leaning political constituency with the reality that they have replaced their faith in God with an idolatrous belief in human reason for fear that they consider us crazed lunatics – or even worse, rabid fundamentalists.
  • We cannot confront an aging group of baby-boomers (and I am one) with the thought that the way in which they have used and abused the earth’s resources is in direct contradiction to the mandate in Genesis to husband the earth for fear that they might withdraw their necessary contributions to the church.
  • We cannot confront either Democrat or Republican with the gospel call to forsake all idolatrous nationalism for fear that we might be viewed as being unpatriotic.
  • We cannot preach the exclusive message of the gospel for fear that we will be considered hateful and prejudiced.
  • We cannot preach that there is one way, and one way only, to God and that is through the death of Christ. We cannot preach believer’s baptism because that is simply a dogma and is narrow minded. We cannot preach that there is only one church because that is sectarian.
  • On the other hand, we must preach inclusiveness, praise individuality, and above all, maintain the liturgy of the Church of the American Myth.

In short, what we need to preach is the insipid, watered down, meaningless pablum that we hear from every other religious organization that has swallowed Satan’s bait – hook, line and sinker. Oh, we will be popular, and I can list a number of congregations that are just busting out of their buildings to the point they have to have “multiple campuses” to demonstrate their popularity.

But, if I read the book of Revelation correctly, these are not of the church of Christ, even if they wear the name Church of Christ.

In preaching this gospel we cannot afford to be hateful, mean-spirited, ungracious. It is a command, not a mere suggestion, that we “speak the truth in love.” But is is simply un-loving to change the gospel into something that it is not. The apostle Paul had no hesitancy to know and to teach that the gospel is repugnant to a wide range of audiences – it is a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks. The early martyrs, from Stephen on down, were not killed because they told everyone that they were quite all right. To Americans the gospel is “hate speech.” Because it challenges each and every one of us to die to ourselves and our selfishness, the gospel is deeply offensive.

To be sure, I have only painted one side of the picture. The other side is that the gospel is profoundly beautiful and loving. It is the picture of a God who so loved his (rebellious and fallen) creation that he became a part of that creation in order to redeem it. It is a picture of a God who so wants to totally redeem all of that creation that he has entrusted those who believe in him with the blessed task of sharing in that redemptive story. I do not want to ever lose sight of this side of the story. But just as the gospel story recounts, you cannot get to the resurrection without first going through the cross. No one objects to Easter. Gethsemane and Calvary are preposterously offensive, however, and it is exactly Gethsemane and Calvary that we are called to bear.

As our culture falls ever more deeply into a moral abyss, it is absolutely critical that someone, or a bunch of someones, preaches this offensive gospel, so that the cross of Christ will be effective and powerful to draw men and women to God.

The question is, who is going to preach it?

Some Reflections on Recent Readings

What do Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lesslie Newbigin, and Os Guinness have in common? Hmm. Not nationality. Not ecclesiastical connection. Not profession. Not currently alive. Seemingly, not much. There is, however, one thing that unites these three outwardly disparate characters.

All three make an unflinching, and in their own way, extraordinary defense of the gospel of Christ. How I became interested in each of the authors would require a separate post, but suffice it to say that my reading list takes me in strange, and in some cases, indefinable, directions.

This year my reading list has included a number of works from Guinness and Newbigin. I have read deeply and broadly on Bonhoeffer. That one characteristic that I noted above keeps coming back to me again and again. Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness are all driven, in their own unique circumstance, back to the core of the gospel of Christ to confront their respective churches and cultures.

Some people may think it sad that I praise such men so highly. They each represent strains of theological convictions that I ultimately find to be lacking. Why read them? And, if I read them, why not critique them and discuss their flaws instead of praising them? Quite on the contrary, I think it is sad that I have to resort to reading Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness to find such a courageous and counter-cultural approach to issues confronting the church today.

I may just be swimming in the wrong pond, but I find it singularly distressing that I just cannot find any author from my faith community, the Churches of Christ, who is taking such an unpopular, and convicting, stance against the idolatry of our western, and primarily, American, culture. There are those who rail against gross distortions of biblical morality, but it does not take too much of a scratch to discover that their Christianity is more related to “churchianty” than the gospel of Christ.

If there are such authors or preachers, please let me know, I would love to read/hear what they are saying. And, please, do not suggest such men as are leading the “mega” churches of our fellowship in Texas or Tennessee. I know the difference between healthy theology and pablum, and believe me, I know it when I see it. As Forrest Gump once said, that is all I’m going to say about that.

I am trying, in my own inept and halting way, to be what I hear Bonhoeffer, Newbigin, and Guinness calling me to be. I know they are imperfect, that each of them has said, or written, things about which I would strongly disagree. I know they are fallen human beings, and I am a fallen human being.

It’s just that I am deeply humbled, troubled even, with the depth of their commitment to, and defense of, the gospel of Christ to challenge all of the principalities and powers of the world that they see (or saw). I find myself too comfortable bowing down to the idols they refused to submit to. I find myself too fearful to preach against the idolatry they fearlessly ¬†attacked.

I hope to do better. I think, in order to be faithful to my calling, I have to be better.