We have come to the end of our discussion of John Stackhouse’s Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World. I’ve read this book three times now. Here are some reasons why this book has been so important to me.
Shalom – Almost 25 years ago, while in grad school, I took a Kyregma class at my Presbyterian church on the topic of shalom. Getting a grip on the centrality of this Hebrew concept to the warp and woof of the entire Bible has been formational to my thinking ever since. Many emerging Christians today are taken with the New/Fresh Perspective on Paul … which locates Paul’s teaching firmly in the context of Second Temple Judaism, revealing that Paul was dealing with far more comprehensive views of redemption beyond the narrow issues of personal salvation, or law versus grace. This study was a similar epiphany for me. Shalom was the central theme to the lengthy series I wrote three years ago on Theology and Economics (see here). Shalom is at the heart of Stackhouse’s ethical calculus. That is one of the primary reasons I identify so strongly with this book.
Final Destiny – There is a pervasive view that humanity’s destiny is an ethereal place called heaven. As Stackhouse emphasizes, a new earth …. one that is somehow both continuous and radically discontinuous with this earth … will be our new home. Furthermore, what we do in our daily activities also somehow impacts future realities. The material world matters and will somehow be redeemed.
“Already, Not Yet” – While the biblical narrative has redemption and restoration of shalom as its theme, and teaches that the Kingdom of God which gives witness to God’s shalom was inaugurated with Jesus Christ, it is also true that the narrative makes clear that there will be some crisis moment in the future when the new creation is consummated. That creates what I believe is the central paradox of Christian mission: We are to be seeking shalom in all we do in a context where full authentic shalom is unattainable. Lean too hard toward an unqualified pursuit of shalom and you end up with destructive idealistic movements. Lean too hard toward the limitations and you end up with rationalization of the status quo and accommodation … or possibly separation from dominant culture altogether. Accommodation is not an option yet both idealistic transformationalism and cultural separatism both strike me as attempts to escape the tension.
Four Commandments – I particularly appreciated Stackhouse’s framing of the “four commandments.” Creation Commandments: 1) cultural mandate, 2) love God and love neighbor. Redemption Commandments: 3) love one another as I have loved you, 4) the Great Commission. This framing is helpful in processing exactly how God has sent us into the world … both in an ontological sense and in the more temporary sense of the mission of redemption.
Tetralectic – If are to obey the four commandments as we pursue shalom in an “already, not yet” context, all the time avoiding diversion into either side of the paradox, how are we to find guidance in our lives? I really appreciate Stackhouse’s tetralectic of Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience all interacting with the guidance of the Spirit as we share in community. There is no formula. There is risk. I suspect attempts to escape this tetralectic approach are usually attempts to find rest in a false certainty (ex. fundamentalist doctrine, pure reason, etc.,)
Realism versus Idealism –When a young man and women fall in love they enter into a type of insanity … they see only the best in each other (real or imagined) and live in a fantasy of achieving eternal bliss. Sociologists and psychologists suggest this temporary altered-state of reality may be necessary to create the initial bonding that will hold them together once “the drug” wears off. The operative word here is “temporary.” At some point, the real world returns and the couple must address these realities if they are to have sustainable relationship.
Much of what I see in the church world, whether it is Evangelical revival services for “saving souls,” Religious Right political action, Mainline Church prophetic witness, or emerging church activism, strikes me as all too similar to the state of young lovers in love. We fall in love with being in love. We are ever looking for the next big romantic fix … the next moving worship service, the next great mission trip, the next great social justice activity. Idealistic visions and causes are endlessly lifted up but the instruction that equips us to live beyond the honeymoon stage is absent.
Stackhouse’s book is a like tall cool drink of realistic water in the middle the scorched earth of frenetic idealism. There is no doubt in my mind that some will characterize Stackhouse’s work as cultural accommodation because he does not rise to their idealistic standards. (Having views very similar to his, I get the same myself.) It is much like trying to tell a young couple in love of the challenges they face ahead only to be dismissed because you do not know the strong love the lovers have for each other. But for those like me who long ago got over the honeymoon … who weary of the endless call of others for us to recapture that bliss … and want some serious reflection on following Christ in the real world, I have rarely encountered a book that does so in such a thorough and accessible way.
Well … there you have it. It took 34 posts but the series is over. I’m certain I’ve butchered aspects of this book but I hope I’ve whetted your appetite with enough of the specifics that you will pick up a copy and tell others about it. For those from the Hauerwas/Yoder perspective, I’d particularly encourage you to read a copy as I think he respectfully offers a counterpoint. Even if you don’t agree with Stackhouse he has important insights to bring to the conversation. (It would be interesting to have a book discussion reading this book and Yoder’s “Politics of Jesus” side by side.)
Thanks to those who have followed along and thanks for the great conversation along the way.