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,
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

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?”


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

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