Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be

This goofy gang may be dressed up for an 80’s party or something but you should know they are the cream of the crop of today’s collegiate evangelists, intellectually and spiritually mature, spending time this summer reading and learning about their upcoming tasks as campus workers. The Coalition for Christian Outreach (CCO), the para-church campus ministry based in Pittsburgh with whom Beth and I serve as Associate Staff–that means we’re their official booksellers—had me out to help with new staff training this week. I offered a passionate and jam-packed class on modernity and postmodernity, the need for campus workers to contextualize their evangelism and disciple-making to the distinctive ethos of the institutions of higher education in which they find themselves.
Obviously, college students will be tomorrow’s leaders, and it is strategic and vital to reach often de-churched and secularized postmodern youth with the gospel. It is of equal importance and urgency to help those students who are already followers of Jesus to relate their faith to their majors and future careers. You’ve seen the little advertisement here on the website for the new book by CCO colleagues Derek Melleby and Don Opitz, The Outrageous Idea of Academic Faithfulness (one of the books the new staff are reading together this week.) I have suggested in other posts that this is the best book to give to young adults going off to college and that there is really nothing like it in print. My lectures for these campus workers and their mentors—who will be hitting their respective campuses next month—was an extended riff on the central thesis of the Outrageous Idea book: God calls us to think faithfully and relate a theologically sound life perpsective to the questions of the classroom (along with all aspects of campus living.) To equip youngsters to think in truly Christian ways about their collegiate experiences and to navigate the ideologies and idols of the postmodern university, their campus ministers have got to know the issues, the intellectual mileu, the controversies and practices which need to be lovingly and discerningly engaged. These are deep waters for many young students so these campus ministers have to know their stuff and be flexible and winsome as they exhort the students they befriend. I considered it one of the great priveleges of my summer to get to help teach these campus disciple-makers. That they raise their own salaries makes it tough for their book-buying budgets, too, but they bought what they could.
A good chunk of my time actually was spent hanging out afterwards consulting about books, showing off our book display and helping the new CCO staff learn about our services as booksellers. (They weren’t in their 80’s party mode by then.) Of course I told them about our “Books by Vocation” bibliography over at the website, and recommended resources on developing the Christian mind, the best books on evangelism, social action, building community, cross-cultural friendships, etc. You can imagine the stuff that campus workers have to read up on—eating disorders and institutional racism, how to teach young people to lead Bible studies and how to help them form sexual character, how to help their sponsoring churches learn to care for young adult guests and how to help make sure their own spiritual lives are deep and refeshed.
Brian Walsh & Richard Middleton’s book Truth is Stranger Than it Used to Be —a postmodern sequal to the must-read Transforming Vision–formed some of our conversation. With a very informed and somewhat appreciative take on the deconstructionist critique of modernity’s idols (the myth of objectivity, the idol of progress, the Enlightenment’s hubris and reductionisms, the ideologies of Empire, the false hopes of Rationalism, the subsequent encroaching secularization and crass consumerism and relativism) they show the philosophical and cultural consequences of the postmodern turn. The second half of the book is a creative and sustained Bible study, making an audacious claim that the way to speak into the postmodern culture is with the vision of unfolding drama of the Scriptures, showing that the heart of the story is that the Author of the plot, is the God who suffers and dies for His beloved creation, establishing, through a Spirit-empowered, counter-cultural community, a good Kingdom of peace and healing. Can we learn to love the Scriptures like Walsh & Middleton do?** Can we proclaim them with all the pathos and care and hope that they show in Truth Is Stranger…? Can we embody communities of grace that are signposts of the coming Kingdom? In the context of teaching about the call to wholistic dischipleship, intellectual fidelity, and contextualized campus ministry, this was a challange offered to these thoughtful new CCO staff.
Brian Walsh continues this matter in a little known book of four powerful, intellectually- stimulating and Biblically mind-blowing essays entitled Subversive Christianity: Imaging God in Dangerous Times (Alta Vista; $10.) He reminds us—and I reminded the new CCO staff at the highpoint of my lecture—that intellectual switcheroos, changing ideas (even from a dualistic and privitized worldview to a faith that is full-orbed and culturally relevant) is NOT enough. (This is, by the way, a problem with many of the recent conservative writers that are writing about worldviews, as if they are merely a set of doctrinal or philosophical concepts with which we agree or disagree.) Revising the ideas of our worldviews, needful as that is, is not the goal of a fully repentant and renewed faithfulness. Walsh, who has made his living as a Christian scholar and worldview teacher, insists that true spiritual transformation and cultural reformation will happen when our imaginations change. Drawing on sources deep within the prophetic literature (Jeremiah, mostly) as explicated by Walter Brueggemann, for instance, in The Prophetic Imagination, Walsh’s Subversive Christianity tells us to allow God’s vision to become our own by the breaking of our hearts, a rejection of idols, a pathos-filled imagination that in faith believes that God will do good things in our times. Do we walk by faith? Can we imagine what it means to be hopeful people? Subversive Christianity is one of my all time favorite books, and I recomended it to them.
People of serious faith will struggle with these things, and perhaps our book selections here at the shop, over at the website, and my reviews and blogs here at BookNotes, will help. Hopefully, this motley and silly crew of the CCO–gotta love the guy who shaved his head to look like Mr. T!—will take their exuberant and faithful approaches into the dorms and classrooms, coffee-shops and locker rooms of our Mid-Atlantic colleges and universities. Pray for them, please. And thanks for caring about our bookselling ministry here. Want to join the fun by ordering any of the one’s I’ve mentioned? It sure would be good to know that others, too, are on this journey…
**By the way, in case you haven’t followed their writing career: I mentioned the love for the Scriptures (creatively taught) shown in the last half of Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be. Brian Walsh teamed up with his wife Sylvia Keesmaat, and later wrote Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire a book which I named as the book of the year a year ago. It, again, is a politically radical and exegetically solid take on postmodernism, Empire, the nature of the witness of the early church communities and how we, today, might live out the vision of the book of Colossians. Agree with it or not, it is one of the most thought-provoking and extraordinary books I’ve read. Many folks agree, and we’re happy to have had a small hand in it. Subversive Christianity, though, is not as well known, and we would love to suggest it to you.