Postmodern Pilgrims

I know I run the risk of looking like a raving Leonard Sweet groupie, but the man does have another new book out and it is, well, sweet. Like the others I've recently reviewed in these pages (check out the old columns at www.heartsandmindsbooks.com), Postmodern Pilgrims is an extraordinary, interesting and insightful piece of work. Rev. Sweet is a master of explaining social trends, statistics and demographics and knows how to spin metaphors--and then stack 'em up--into nearly holographic stories which become new ways to see our world and ministries. He gets you thinking, and he gets you going.

I have often suggested that the audio version of SoulTsunami is one of the best I've heard and that it distills that massive book into a zany, user-friendly po-mo experience. Of course you miss all the book citations and suggestions of Web sites and activities which are in the full-bodied footnotes. But either way--book or tape--Tsunami explains the lived experience of the new millennium world and invites us to creative brooding on what it all means.

After doing two other titles applying his vision to church leadership (AquaChurch) and daily spirituality and discipleship (SoulSalsa) Sweet has returned to his more broad analysis of postmodernity and the new world we are now inhabiting. Whether one is an immigrant (older staff) to this new world or a native speaker (some younger staff), this book is essential as he is trying to show how the 21st century church, like a ship being tossed in stormy seas, needs the ancient tradition. He shows how to cast the anchor of the gospel into the future and winch ourselves forwards.

What an image! The classic tradition of truth--"the faith that was once for all delivered"--being cast not as an anchor to hold us still, but as the very weight which pulls us out safely into the ever-changing future! (See, even a metaphor like anchor can be "read" as a conservative and stable force which holds us in place or as a powerhouse of a pulley out into the raging seas. Which is it?) Sweet's nice subtitle is "first century passion for the 21st century world." I believe the CCO should know this book, reflect on our organizational and ministry practices in light of it, and use it as one more contribution to the ongoing reformation of our work.

Practically, Postmodern Pilgrims is money well-invested for another simple reason: the short stories and illustrations are perfect for those who give talks, write sermons or newsletters, teach lessons, discuss discipleship. It is bulging with little examples of social analysis, packed with quotes and poems and great lines which you can use.

I worry that some authors just crank out too much stuff too quickly, but Sweet is one of those high-energy guys who just can't shut up. (And he does have an uncanny ability to do several things at once--postmodern multi-tasking, you know.) This book came about mostly because of the feedback on one chapter in SoulTsunami, the one in which he argues for a shift towards the EPIC. By EPIC, he means the experiential, participatory, image-based and communal. (Hey wilderness guys and gals: skip his techno-talk about Web gizmos and this is right up your road less taken!) The new book is basically more of that, with the heart being four really good new chapters loaded with case studies, spectacular quotes and clever evaluation of the social significance of everything from eBay to iBooks, from the decreasing popularity of television to the increasing popularity of praise songs, each making the powerful case to go EPIC.

Despite the dust-jacket artwork which includes a great photo of medieval gothic statuary, be warned: unlike, say, Robert Webber's AncientFuture Faith, Dr. Sweet spends very little time explaining the classic tradition. The book is peppered with quotes from throughout church history (patristic, orthodox, catholic, reformed, evangelical). Sweet's own holiness Methodist background (I assume) has him quite properly understand the ancient tradition, not primarily as church history but as the authority of Christ as revealed in Scripture. If Sweet is known as a flamboyant futurist, know also that he is mad about being a follower of Jesus. Strip away all the semiotics, quantum physics, new age managerial theories; cut beyond the poets, philosophers and all the cybertech gizmos and you are left with a man in love with Jesus, trying to be faithful as a follower in this time and place.

But--and this is the "but" we in the CCO understand and struggle with--Jesus is God incarnated! To follow Him is to work out our salvation in the real stuff of realworld history. The old missionary theory of contextualization--surprise!--is not just a task for missionaries in Timbukto, but is the high calling of all those who would be sons and daughters of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32) by serving God with our bodies (Romans 12:1), bringing the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15.)

If one does not burn to study our culture, to know the complexities, nuances, meanings and mores of our age--not to mention the anticipated next era in which your new disciples will be working out their faith--I would suggest that one has a deficient view of the doctrine of Christ (was or was He not fully human fully incarnated?), a deficient view of the atonement (does or does not salvation redeem every zone of culture?) and a deficient understanding of mission (are we or are we not to incarnate the gospel in the world?). Do I need to mention the doctrine of creation and the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28? If you understand these chief doctrines and you see therefore that we must do cultural studies as contextualized missionaries--and you long to more fully understand our world and place in history--read this book. If you want to understand the basic shift from modern to postmodern, and know how to explain it to others, read this book. You will be surprised by its insight and you will have some of those "aha" experiences. If you are not yet passionate about studying the contours of the new world we are moving into, I challenge you to be acquainted with Sweet. Allow his passions to become your own. Ponder the implications of his predictions. Sense the need for new wineskins. Host the question Sweet once posed to me, "If God so loved the world, why don't we?"

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Two new books which I must mention. Each are remarkably important and deserve their own lengthy reviews. Call me and we'll talk if you have questions, but I assume you will recognize their significance.

The Wedge of Truth: Splitting the Foundations of Naturalism by Philip Johnson. Everybody knows Darwin on Trial and the subsequent firestorm of a debate about intelligent design and origins (even seen in scholarly scientific journals as well as public intellectual mags like Harpers). Here, in the book we've long awaited, Johnson develops a strategy to promote public debate and to shift the discussion about how we discuss science. He shows us how (without abandoning rational thought or science) to call for a cognitive revolution, a fundamental change in our worldview and consequently the way science is seen and done. Johnson helps us put back on the table for public debate issues that have often been ruled out of court--you and your students have been there, so this is nothing new to you--and he believes we can change that within this generation. Certainly for those of us who work in those thought-centers of the Western world that are colleges and universities, this important book is a must-read.

As Johnson has shown in an earlier book, naturalism (and its secular assumptions) has been the worldview which has deformed nearly every academic discipline, so please understand that this book is not just one more rehash of the evolution-creationism debate. It is about using God's truth as a wedge to crack open and dismantle some of the chief idols of our age. Reread the Elijah vs. Baal story and then grab this book quick; maybe your campus is the next Mount Carmel.

A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice ($12.50) and The Biblical Theme of Justice ($1.50) by James W. Skillen (CRC Publications.) You've heard me talk about this at Staff Seminar. You know Jim Skillen from his visits to New Staff Training, Jubilee and whatnot. He is an old friend of the CCO, one of the world's leading scholars on Abraham Kuyper's reformational worldview and a gem of a political theorist. He is a guy you can trust as civic-minded, truly nonpartisan, concerned with orthodox biblical doctrine and responsible social involvement. Not one to overstate a case or get caught up in flamboyant rhetoric--in other words he ain't like me!--Jim's work at the Center for Public Justice is one of the nation's best-kept secrets, and one of the CCO's most under-utilized allies.

Recently, he compiled what may be 25 years of his Bible studies and devotions inspired by the view of the Scriptures that we call "historical redemptive" and which is best seen in the Promise & Deliverance commentaries. Not moralistic, nor stretching to force the Scriptures to "address" contemporary issues, Covenant to Keep opens up the grand sweep of the Scriptures and shows that public justice and social righteousness is integral to the redemptive work of God in history. (Can anyone say "creation-fall-redemption"?) This is one of the best Bible studies/devotionals I have ever seen; that it develops themes of justice and citizenship in this funky election year is all the better.

The book includes excellent and provocative discussion questions, several really choice case studies of folk who are working hard for justice in particular places, and it is laid out in an orderly, thematic fashion. It is truly a useful handbook to the Bible and a great example of how to read the Bible faithfully, allowing it to illumine our lives, current events and our need for restorative justice.

Happily, there is an inexpensive booklet which sells for $1.50 with excerpts from Covenant to Keep entitled The Biblical Theme of Justice which includes the prologue and five brief essays from the book. This baby should be bought and passed out now--who knows when your students will be as open to these themes as now, in the heat of a Presidential campaign. What a way to illustrate that the Kingship of Christ calls us to a biblically-informed understanding of society, including politics. Every field should be so fortunate as to have such a resource, such a research Center and such a level-headed prophet as James Skillen.