Unfettered Hope

People who have browsed our Web site or folks who have seen our book displays at conferences or retreats know that there are a few authors we routinely promote. I often say that I would read anything they wrote and recommend that Christians who want to be well-read do so, too. One such writer-friend is Marva Dawn. She has a brand new book, which just arrived last month. Let me set the stage, though, for describing this important new book from Marva. If you don’t know her body of work, let me invite you to read on.
Marva may be best known for her important work saying a hard prophetic word against a liturgically shallow and aesthetically pop-song approach to worship that claims to be designed more for reaching consumerist seekers than adoring a holy God in a manner consistent with historic theology and spiritually mature sensibilities. As you will see, and what some people don’t know, is that she writes about much, much more. And all of her books are worth reading.
Her well-known Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down, as I have said in these pages before, is at once magisterial and at places a bit overstated; it thoughtfully analyzes (in great depth) the making, mood and mores of the secularized and consumerist age in which we live — the first half is more what I would call cultural criticism, and it is remarkable. Only David Wells’ No Time for Truth comes to mind as a similarly massive and important bit of Christian criticism about our times. And yet in the second half, I think she is unnecessarily cranky about recent trends in contemporary worship. This is odd since those of us privileged to know Marva know that there are few speakers who can be so earnest and full of Godly kindliness, able to proclaim truth in a gracious way. Some who think she misrepresents contemporary worship design have dismissed her, and this is tragic.
I suggest starting with the book that came after Reaching Out”¦, a collection called A Royal Waste of Time. It is a fabulous collection of essays about the need for quality worship, which should characterize our communities of faith. Worship is for God and God alone, yet it shapes us as we become a countercultural community which exists to serve the unchurched world, especially the needy and hurting. Much of this fine book is about the relationship of the church and the world, about having a heart not only for orthodox formulations of worship, but innovative and artistic approaches to “singing a new song” in a manner that is consistent with the biblical vision of God and our calling. The book is culturally savvy, the chapters mostly short, and it is an ideal introduction to her overall project.
One chapter, given at the State Pastor’s Conference in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania a few years ago, includes an ongoing “discussion” with Gen X novelist Douglas Coupland and is worth the price of the book! These are rich and important sermons, addresses, speeches, and even a few children’s sermons that I dip back into regularly.
These broad themes are common in Ms. Dawn’s body of work. She writes about community (Truly the Community), spirituality and resting from our consumer culture (Keeping the Sabbath Wholly), the Christian obligation for moral purity formed amongst genuine personhood and friendship (Sexual Character) and the need to be different than the media-drenched culture, especially as we include children into our lives (Is It a Lost Cause?). She routinely reminds those who follow Christ of the role of the Scriptures in our spiritual formation, the need for Christian integrity in daily life and the need for Spirit-driven and bold initiatives of outreach and mission.
As an evangelical Lutheran (who studied under radical Mennonite Bible scholar John Howard Yoder) and a Ph.D. studying the work of Jacque Ellul, she brings an ecumenical vision and a range of research that is remarkably broad. Those of us who love books are always delighted in the interesting quotes and citations, which illustrate Marva’s wide range of reading, and how she can weave together strands from different traditions and schools of scholarship. (I must say — and I hope it isn’t gratuitous — that, as a bookseller, we love her enthusiasm for the significance of our work, for her kind encouragement and her unique purchases. Would that other Christian leaders be as intentional about serious reading, broad research and study that is deeply informed by authentic biblical study.)
Dawn’s 2002 book, Power, Weakness and the Tabernacling of God, is the text of a lecture series given at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. These important, well-written, and rather scholarly lectures make a compelling case which I can only summarize. She first shows that neither narrowly-defined, personalistic views of the demonic, nor socially-defined approaches that politicize the forces of evil, are adequate when forming a perspective on what the Bible calls “the principalities and powers.” The first lecture brilliantly brings appreciative but critical insight to the work of Walter Wink (who is known for an important trilogy of books on the powers). Next, having shown that to change the world and fight the powers is no small matter — we surely cannot defeat the powers by lobbying — she explains that we can only change the world through identifying with the weakness of the Cross. We do not just fight or conquer (or ignore) the array of demonic and idolatrous forces in our distorted and broken world, but we take on the ways of the Christ. And, as you might expect, she shows that we do this best as we worship well, experiencing God’s grace as God abides with us. Each chapter is well worth reading and rereading; taken together, they form a powerful argument and compel us to a richer worship, a more faithful social ethic and an integrated worldview.
I explain all this to try to persuade you that Marva Dawn is worth reading, that any of her good books work well in small-group discussions, and that you should make sure her writings are known in your church, fellowship or group. (Happily, all her profits go to her ministry, which helps the poor in developing countries.)
Her meditations on the Psalms (I’m Lonely Lord — How Long?) or her wonderful collection of short chapters on Isaiah 40 (To Run and Not Faint) are all nice places to begin. The great new cover on the new Eerdmans reissue of her commentary on Revelation, Joy in Our Weakness, makes it a special edition. Few have found such joy in sorrow, such peace in pain, and here we see why.
(And, of course, when weirdo end-times interpretations of the Apocalypse and mega-selling blockbuster fiction like you-know-what are commonplace, a clear-headed, warm-hearted and biblically-astute reflection is a true gift. Put it in your church library if these matters concern you as they do us.)
Unfettered Hope
I tell you all of this also with the serious hope that you will also order Marva Dawn’s brand new title: Unfettered Hope: A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society (Westminster/John Knox, $18.95). It is at once new stuff and yet vintage Dawn. We are very, very excited about it.
In Unfettered Hope, Marva takes us to the heart of the values of American culture, into what a more flamboyant writer might call “the belly of the beast.” She gets under the skin, naming clearly that which drives many of us. She brings incisive critique to not only crass materialism, but the debilitating effects of technology. Those familiar with her excellent book about children, Is It a Lost Cause? Having the Heart of God for the Church’s Children (a book she once told me she thought to be her most radical and most urgently needed), will see similar themes. She draws on important (really important) social critics such as Albert Borgman and Neil Postman, as well as top-notch biblical scholars. This takes her contribution to a deeper and truly insightful level. (I would say, “Read it and weep,” but, as the title reveals, it is a book about hope. So I say, “Read it and weep and then rejoice in the firm and true and beautiful alternative we have to the false gods and creepy idols of the twenty-first century.”)
Unfettered Hope is much more than a diatribe against secularity, modernity and the hyper-speed of our cyber-culture. It is a wise and gifted analysis — Eugene Peterson called it “trenchant” — of where we find hope and how we generate and receive hope. She maintains that there are epidemic socio-cultural values that literally erode hope and humanness. Because affluent people don’t really know what is most important — what to value — we remain dissatisfied with what we have and are driven to want more and more. Which, as you surely know, clutters up our own lives, allows our minds to be captured by cheap amusements, our souls to grow flabby, and hurts the world’s poorest and the creation itself. Rarely have idols proven to be so enticing and yet so damaging.
Yet we don’t even know or care much, which is why we need a truth-teller — a kind one, praise be — like Marva to speak into our world and values and lifestyles and call us to different cares and concerns.
Especially after 9-11, when our symbolic icons of wealth and power — Wall Street and the Pentagon — were shown to be vulnerable, we are people adrift. The more aware among us have long known that science, progress, status and economic growth serve as idols in our culture; we know that the American Dream is not adequate. Even some of those who don’t attend to these things much thought it odd that our President, after the horrific tragedy at the World Trade Towers, told us to shop. It is enough to make even materialists despair. (That so few cried blasphemy, that no church called this brother to account for, if not idolatry, at least gross insensitivity, still pains me years later. Which, again, is why I cherish those like Marva who tell a different Story. I need to surround myself with writers like she, and you most likely do to.)
Still, it is painfully disconcerting to knowingly disengage our lives from those things we once trusted. Trust and obey, the old hymn says, but it isn’t that easy. If we once hoped in affluence and we now are clearer that such a vision is unsustainable, how do we construe hope? What do we build our lives upon? What does it mean to have unfettered hope?
Walt Brueggemann — himself a prophet of hope — has said of this book, “Her argument is of immense power, a most welcome read in a social environment that grows increasingly mean and thin. Dawn voices well the good news that the world need not be the way that it is very sadly becoming. With intentionality and concrete disciplines and practices, another way in the world is possible.”
Eugene Peterson, another favorite writer (whose own book on these themes, based on the more public Psalms of ancient Israel, Where Your Treasure Is, is an important resource for those on the journey towards what he calls “the un-selfing of America”), puts it well: “When Marva Dawn writes, I read. And soon I’m trying to get all my friends to read. Read this trenchant analysis of the post 9/11 world. Read her prophetic confrontation with the flabby American soul. Clarifying, energizing, necessary words for Christian understanding and obedience.” Amen.
A few other titles that are new and might be similar friends on a journey towards the lifestyle of fidelity that Marva so wonderfully invites us to:
How Much is Enough? Hungering for God in an Affluent Culture by Arthur Simon (Baker, $11.99). I almost made this the lead book in this month’s review. Art is a dear, dear man, a saint for starting Bread for the World, the anti-hunger citizen’s lobby group that I often talk about. Few organizations impress us as much, few ministries have been as widely received, few anti-hunger groups are as effective. And yet, Art here does not wade through the heaviness of global poverty, Third-World development, or the biblical demand for a social order based on justice for the poor. Rather, he sets his caring hand to write about the deep, deep hunger of heart and soul among those of us who are affluent — those whose meaning is eroded by the values and lifeways that Marva Dawn so helpfully deconstructs. Indeed, Marva has said of this, “Art Simon deepens our trust in God’s bountiful grace and thereby empowers us to apportion our wealth more open-handedly. Share this book with everyone you know — the world can’t wait for justice!”
Share this book with everyone you know — the world can’t wait. Marva is not a bookseller and stands nothing to gain by saying this. She is right: this delightful and enriching book is uplifting and informative, helpful and inspiring, full of gratitude and generosity. It is about giving, grace, saner ways to life and easier ways to find meaning and joy. Surely, it is about Christian discipleship, spirituality and faithfulness; Art Simon has earned the right to say whatever he thinks needs saying. Here, he blesses us with wisdom, care, kindness and an invitation that could change the world. And, not incidentally, much of the book is about — yep! — hope.
Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope by Joan D. Chittister (Eerdmans, $20.00). It is no accident that Sister Joan (from the Pax Center and the Benedictine community in Erie, Pennsylvania) is becoming better-known with each new book. She speaks powerfully, writes graciously, and is able to take the life-giving vision of Catholic monastic spirituality and apply it to ordinary folk in the work-a-day world. (Benedictines are often good at this, of course.) Chittister has a particular passion for finding ways to allow our deepest spirituality to shape and inform work for peace and justice. Some of her radical Catholic commitments to nonviolence may seem a bit radical for some not used to reading this kind of faith-based, spirituality with an edge; for others, it just makes tremendous sense. For all, I would guess, it is a journey of risk and faith, courage and hope. Which is why I love this new collection of inspirational pieces.
Here, Sister Joan shares intimate reflections on the scarring and the hope, the struggle and the healing, the pain and the renewal. This reflection, which could be called “holding on to hope” comes to us from a mystic and a prophet. They are specific reflections — on topics as mundane as exhaustion, as heart-rending as feeling excluded, as common as our daily fears. Using what she terms “a paradigm of struggle,” this is a book about the process of increasing faithfulness, increasing honesty, increasing hope.