GROWING UP conservative, white, suburban, and evangelical in North America, for me nothing was more important than the Bible and Jesus. Yet like many, I have grown out of evangelicalism—not because the Bible and Jesus are no longer important, but because the “Bible answer men” have used their interpretations to justify nonsense all over the globe.
James W. Perkinson’s Messianism Against Christology is an important contribution to the Bible and Jesus reclamation project of post-evangelicals, poets, and prophets. This works delves into “the deep past” of cultures and scriptures, but begins and ends in current-day Detroit (a city where imperialism and resistance face off daily). Perkinson reads this cityscape and riffs on an alternative future glimpsed in urban folk art, hip-hop, and “rewilding” abandoned spaces.
Perkinson proclaims that “this work is a reading of the Jesus-event as movement ... and intelligible only to the degree we take such ‘movement history’ seriously.” He takes to task the monopolizing and colonizing “Western messianic complex” and the corresponding doctrine represented in classic Christology: “[N]o other name has leveraged more conquest, enslavement, and plundering in human history. ... under the spiritual sponsorship of a kind of Logos-delirium, ‘Christ’ has been made the Alpha-Male Author and Great Heavenly Apologist of the End Game of the epoch.”
Perkinson ultimately offers a theological correlate to Daniel Quinn’s Beyond Civilization. A truly biblical messianism (as opposed to Christology) is a creative, analytic critique of empire rooted in small communities of nurture and struggle. “What we need to be saved from in such an orientation,” Perkinson writes, “is the imperial pretension to conquer, control, and enslave an entire planet of resources and life forms.”
Perkinson’s own urban roots dispel the myth that those who commit to this messianism against Christology must literally check out of civilization and enter the wild. Perkinson upholds a faith that “will highlight values and recall traditions whose power is rooted in wildlands symbiotics and insist these are central to the struggle for justice in an otherwise settled lifestyle.” It’s more about a shift in mentality and sensibility than about geography.
Virtue is worth thinking about. We should think, carefully, about the kind of person we want to be and the kind of habits we want to develop. In The Road to Character, Brooks asks these questions of us, rightly urging us to be concerned with developing an inner moral life of virtue and integrity. Unfortunately, his self-focused attitude toward morality leaves little room for grace for the morally weak — which is all of us.
When asked directly about the relation of grace and individual agency, at a recent Trinity Forum event, Brooks confessed that he simply didn’t know — that he had no idea which of the two should take precedence.
I don’t know Brooks’ personal faith, nor do I intend to cast aspersions on his morality. Still, he panders to all of my worst inclinations in writing The Road to Character as a stoic moral theology, with only slight glimmers of grace to lighten the way. Brooks holds up several vastly different exemplars of a moral life, from Montaigne to Eisenhower, who are united in a certain integrity and humility — an unwillingness to be governed by circumstances that are outside of our control, while focusing on the things that we can.
Brooks reduces God to being a helper needed by some, while others are perfectly capable of struggling through their moral issues alone. To Brooks, a self-built journalist should be imitated as much as a grace-oriented social worker, or a novelist who was motivated by adulterous love as much as a bishop who was driven by love for God. In his moral universe, there are many ways of developing yourself. The better ones focus on building virtues rather than a resume, but all provide pathways for individual development.
In recently released Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World, Jonathan Hollingsworth and his mother, Amy Hollingsworth (best-selling author of The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers) tell the story of college-age Jonathan’s mission trip to the African country of Cameroon. After participating in a short-term mission trip to Honduras, Jonathan felt inspired to serve others in a more profound way. When he connected with a missions organization that promised him a year of exciting opportunities to serve in Africa — and he was able to raise the necessary funding — he seized hold of the opportunity with a vulnerable heart and a zeal for personal sacrifice.
After reading the above description, you might be surprised to learn that Runaway Radical is actually a story of spiritual abuse. But by the time Jonathan prepared to leave for his yearlong trip to Cameroon, his entire family — and his supporters — were groomed for abuse. They were groomed by ideas perpetuated by many people and many organizations, teachings many Christians would follow without much of a second thought. The first idea asserts that everything done in God’s name is good. The second idea works in companion with the first, declaring there is always more you can be doing, more you can be sacrificing, to prove your commitment to your God and to his mission.
When Jonathan traveled to Cameroon, not only did his host prevent him from serving in the ways he had hoped, his mission organization used him and his funding for their own selfish purposes with little regard for his health and well-being. During his time in Cameroon, Jonathan’s organization forbade him from developing relationships with locals whose behavior did not follow their stringent moral code, defined for him who the “real” Christians were, and denied him immediate access to medical care. Jonathan also learned that the leader of the organization lied to him about the status of the the supposed projects of which Jonathan was to be a part.
What began as Jonathan’s eager and well-intentioned trip slowly and painfully morphed into a constricted and disillusioning journey of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual anguish.
Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit Through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders is non-fiction, but I read it like it was one of the latest blockbuster novels, this time with gorgeous writing. I couldn’t put it down, and I didn’t want the journey to end, following Chris Hoke through jails and streams and farms of Washington’s Skagit Valley as he grew from a young man interested in faith outside the walls of the church to a pastor to the “homies” of the area, as they called themselves—men whose criminal past or undocumented status have caused them to be among the most marginalized in our society. This book is imbued with dignity, prayer, and an understanding that relationships require forgiveness, on both sides. Wanted is a beautiful reflection on what the life of faith looks like in action.
Hoke grew up in southern California but was drawn to the dimmer corners of the Christian faith. He made his way to northwest Washington state to work with Tierra Nueva, a ministry that “seeks to share the good news of God’s freedom in Jesus Christ with people on the margins (immigrant, inmates, ex-offenders, the homeless).” We recently chatted about his work with Tierra Nueva, the value of a good metaphor, and how reading the Scriptures in prison can make them new.
Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church. Orbis Book.
Chris Kyle, often described as the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, wrote in his autobiography that he prioritized his life in the following order: God, country, family.
But God doesn’t make a central appearance in the film American Sniper, which opens nationwide on Jan. 16. The film offers a few similarities to Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s recent World War II epic about POW Louis Zamperini.
Both stories focus on the dramatic stories of warriors who died before the movie versions of their lives came out. Both American Sniper and Unbroken include an early scene of their families sitting in church. Both men struggle with substance abuse after returning from war.
And both films largely skirt the faith that Kyle and Zamperini said were key to their identity — and their survival.
As a Navy SEAL, Kyle reportedly recorded 160 kill shots during his four tours in Iraq. His story drew national attention after the release of his 2012 autobiography American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, which enjoyed a 37-week run on The New York Times’ best-seller list.
The Clint Eastwood-directed biopic starring Bradley Cooper debuted with a limited release on Christmas Day, the same day Unbroken opened nationwide.
Kyle opened his book by probing the ethics of combat as he wrote about his first sniper shot, when he had to kill an Iraqi woman holding a grenade.