Review: Soul Tsunami

     First things first. A tsunami is a serious, deadly tidal wave. Second: Dr. Leonard Sweet is a very well-known United Methodist leader. He's President of Drew Theological Seminary and a speaker, preacher, author and workshop leader who is showing up everywhere these days. (I'm looking for a heavyweight match for the busiest schedule between he and Tony C.) Third: his book, SoulTsunami: Sink or Swim in the Millenium Culture (Zondervan 1999, hardback book $19.99, audio cassette $16.99) is spectacular. Not that I agree with it all - I don't even understand it all. But this is one of those books that is an experience to read (and the audio tape is one of the most creatively done, engaging books-on-tape I've ever heard, complete with goofy sound effects!). Every page of SoulTsunami is packed with information about the cultural, technical and social tidal waves which are hitting us every day. Sweet is a master communicator and a very, very clever writer. There are moments that he even reminds me of CCO Hall of Famer Pete Steen. Sweet, like Steen, has a penchant for overstating nearly everything. But when it is pronounced with clever word-play and a big hunk of bravado, one can only chuckle and nod the head. (Some nod yes, some no, but no matter. He has made his point unforgettable.) He is, in his own way, a tidal wave.

     As I review my well-marked pages of SoulTsunami, I'm finding that I've underlined so much, I can't find a simple quote or two to share. How can I convince you that we are in extraordinary times and that the seismic land-changes in the foundations of our culture ("faithquakes," he called them in a previous book) have produced (as earthquakes often do) sea changes and tidal waves? And that these waves are unlike any we've ever experienced? And that this book will help us swim, maybe even surf, rather than sink, in these waves? I wonder if the elders among us are nervous to confront the magnitude of these changes while those who have grown up digital may underestimate the matter. Numerous reviewers (evangelicals and mainline denominational folk ) have given SoulTsunami generous reviews and suggest that Sweet's diagnosis is essential for a faithful and effective incarnation of the gospel in our generation. As pioneers in the 21st century, knowing the lay of the land is essential and this book is a very good roadmap. Leonard, though, would be quick to point out that I'm using an out-dated (modernist) metaphor.

     We are now in transition out of terra firma (if ever there was such a thing) into terra incognito. A sea change of transitions and transformations is birthing a whole new world and a whole set of ways of making our way in the world. We have moved from the solid ground of terra firma to the tossing seas of terra aqua. While the world is rethinking its entire cultural formation, it is time to find new ways of being the church that are true to our postmodern context. It is time for a Postmodern Reformation. From gene-splicing ("Hello, Dolly!") to niche marketing (think Starbucks), voice-activated computers to the ramifications of quantum physics, the 21st century will be a different place to do ministry than it is even today.

     For those of us trained in theology and mission before the Web, before the pace of quick-change acceleration, before the shift to extreme sports, before the embrace of chaos, before gender-bending, before the globalization of everything, current postmodern culture already is breathtakingly different. We're definitely not in Kansas anymore, Toto. We are heading out to sea, carried by currents and winds. And everyone knows it. ("Why the surprise," Sweet asks, "about the success of the movie about the world's most famous shipwreck?") As one bumper sticker says, "Everything in the universe is subject to change and everything is on schedule." As Sweet puts in, "nearly all the cards are wild." This book offers a lot, such as the sheer delight of learning (Leonard knows more about more than just about anybody I've ever met), clever word-play (for instance, in discussing the both/and contradictions of contemporary times, he says "the post-modernist always rings twice") and his passionate urgency (rather than being disgruntled about the changing times, he insists that we "Get it. Get over it. Get into it."). But what amazes me is that the author really does have a helpful system to explain a massive amount of information in an understandable and useful manner.

     He's all over the map (and well off it), describing all sorts of weird stuff, and yet he always comes back to the basic organization of the book. He is telling us what we need to know and what we need to do. And so, the book throws us ten "Life Rings." These rings ("futurables" is a phrase used by the French cyber-journal by that name at are not predictions, but insights about trends which can help leaders make informed preparations as we claim our cultural moment. "They provide," he writes, "a handbook for the new religious and theological literacy of our emerging world and they challenge the church to stop making faces at those who face the future." The flow of the book goes like this: 
  • Life Ring #10 Get into it-A Pre-Christian Culture
  • Life Ring #9 Get Chaordic-"Chaordic" Churches and Leaders
  • Life Ring #8 Get Glocal-The Global Renaissance
  • Life Ring #7 Get Dechurched-De-Everything
  • Life Ring #6 Get EPIC-HOT (Hands-on-Truth) for a HOT (High-Online-Technology) Culture
  • Life Ring #5 Get Bionomic-The Loss of Genetic Innocence
  • Life Ring #4 Get Deidolized-The Godlet Phenomenon
  • Life Ring #3 Get Green-Seven Heads, One Body
  • Life Ring #2 Get Morphed-The Multiverse
  • Life Ring #1 Get Souled Out-The God Rush
     It would take more room than I've got to even explain these wild phrases. Yes, he makes up words. Glocal is the postmodern necessity of being more global and more local at the same time! Chaordic (a phrase coined by the billionaire behind the VISA empire) is that interface between chaos and order, where most creativity happens. EPIC, the memorable sixth Life Ring, stands for "Experiential, Participatory, Interactive and Communal." Do you know a church that isn't discussing (or already hosting) a "contemporary worship service"? Do you have students who are quite attracted to your EPIC campus fellowship group, but are not involved in a local church? Wonder why? This is a great, great insight and a very important insight for church renewal, for fellowships, for our approach to ministry! A final reason to get this book. SoulTsunami is jam-packed with quotes, side-bars, exercises, suggestions for films to view, web pages to surf, novels to discuss. Each chapter even has website-based discussions ( besides the great resources already given in the text. (See, the book itself is interactive and the virtual chapter discussions were online even before there was a real book.) There is more information here than you'll ever use (not unlike our times) presented in a wild and wooley way. It is fun. (You can just hear him laughing as he invites you to debate the role of technology with the anti-technology Luddites, on their webpage!) It is HOT. It is EPIC. I'm tellin' ya: buy this book. And get the audio tape, too, and get folks into it. It will be the ride of your life, and an adventure to beat all. By drawing on the past, he calls us to what he terms "ancientfutures." It invites us to be "dangerously Christian" and "out-of-control." As Rev. Sweet puts it: There is no such thing as safe sex or safe religion. Postmodern culture dictates a different dynamics to being and doing church: multiplicity, connectedness, plurality, resilience, chaos, entrepreneurship, risk-taking. An overmanaged church, like an overmanaged corporation, is mired in the modern paradigm. In fact, stockpiling safety systems, as the airline industry has discovered, increases the likelihood of breakdowns and accidents, not diminishes them. The risk-adverse pursuit of safety is the quickest path to disaster. Anyway: Since when did Jesus call his disciples to lead a risk-free, saftey-first life?

     After one of Linus Pauling's papers was heavily criticized at a scientific meeting, another Nobel Laureate, Niels Bohr, said, "I think we are all agreed that our young colleagues latest theory is crazy. The question is: is it crazy enough to be true?"