Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World
John G. Stackhouse, Jr.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 356 pages.
John Stackhouse, professor of theology at Regent College, seeks to sketch out a theology of culture, an articulation of what Christian discipleship looks like in the “real world” where God’s creational intention of shalom is often frustrated and where all human beings, including Christians, must think and act from a position of inherent limitation (epistemological, moral, etc). The question that animates the entire book is, “Who are we, for Jesus Christ, today?”
More specifically, Stackhouse attempts to offer an alternative to what he feels are two untenable options with respect to how Christians ought to engage the broader culture: 1) the option of cultural transformation (represented by neo-Calvinism, conservative Roman Catholicism, and liberation theologies); and 2) the option of “holy distinctness” (represented by Anabaptists like John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and the radical orthodoxy typified by John Milbank and Catherine Pickstock). Stackhouse’s “Christian realism” seeks to bridge the divide between the poles of cultural conquest and cultural capitulation.
The book is arranged in three parts: using an analysis of H. Richard Niebuhr’s seminal work Christ and Culture, part one sets out the parameters of the discussion, defining key terms such as “church,” “world,” culture,” and “kingdom of God.” Next, Stackhouse looks at three twentieth-century writers who have shaped his thinking on Christian ethics. C.S. Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are each examined in turn, to discover what resources they offer for Christians attempting to understand the posture they ought to take toward the broader culture.
The third and final part represents Stackhouse’s positive contribution to the discussion. What emerges is a “renewed Christian realism”—a realism that “tries to be true to the nature of things, to reality: true to the nature of the world, to the nature of God’s revelation in Scripture, to the nature of the experience of God’s people through several millennia, and especially to the nature of Jesus Christ as we know him, and hear his call, today” (309). This “renewed realism” is sketched out via an outlining of the overall biblical narrative and our mission within it, followed by a discussion of some practical principles of the “renewed realism” Stackhouse advocates.
For Stackhouse, the “story and the mission” of God is the fourfold move from creation, to fall, to redemption, and, ultimately, to consummation. God’s overall goal, according to Stackhouse, is and always was shalom. This is what he initially created, what he wants his followers to pursue in the present, and what he will one day usher in as a permanent reality. At least four principles of a “renewed realism” follow from this understanding of God’s vision for the world.
First, the vision of shalom as the telos of all human striving and longing implies that both the individual the social matter. Individuals matter because they are created and redeemed by God as such, but they are not made to be isolated monads but to thrive in community with other individuals. Second, both the physical and the spiritual are important. Contra an escapist eschatology where we are meant to “escape” the physical world, the Christian hope is an embodied, physical, and imperishable existence, not a disembodied existence in an ethereal spirit-world.
Third, both unity and diversity are important. The Christian vision is, ultimately, of one people with one King, God himself. But all of the nations in their particularity and differences enter and contribute to the mutual benefit of all—a truly multicultural vision that embraces the best of each culture without pronouncing a meaningless affirmation of diversity that assumes that nothing requires change. Finally, “the world to come is in continuity with this world, and fulfills the noble aspirations of this world, even as it clearly transcends this world” (203). The Christian hope that nourishes the present sees the good of this world being validated and consummated even as the evil and pain is taken away.
The overall picture Stackhouse presents is of a good world gone bad, entrusted to good people gone bad, who can, nonetheless, trust that God has equipped them and promised to guide them through the complexities of a faithful life of discipleship—to make the best of their situation, not in the grim sense of making do with an intolerable reality, but in the positive sense of soberly assessing our situation as human beings and as followers of Jesus, and then making it the best we can for Christ’s sake.
There is much to be commended in this book. Stackhouse’s exposition of the thought of Lewis, Niebuhr, and Bonhoeffer is informative and insightful, and ably demonstrates one of his central claims: context matters. The question, “Who are we, for Jesus Christ, today?” depends a lot on what “today” looks like. The demands of discipleship were not identical for a professor of English literature who lived most of his days in relative peace and a pastor/theologian facing the evils of Nazi Germany. All cultures are not created equal, after all, and responding Christianly to them will not always look the same. Stackhouse offers a necessary reminder that understanding the nature of Christian discipleship is not as simple as applying a monolithic template to all times and situations.
Some Mennonite readers will, no doubt, take issue with Stackhouse’s characterization of Anabaptist understandings of Christian discipleship as a “sectarian” withdrawal from culture. Anabaptists are accused of a “more Christian than thou” attitude that presumes that they, alone, take the commands of Jesus seriously enough. However Stackhouse’s critique is directed less at the content of Anabaptist beliefs than with the posture they have sometimes taken with respect to their fellow Christian brothers and sisters. He is willing to admit that it might be God’s will for part of the global church to maintain a strong counter-cultural stance on many issues (i.e., nonviolence); he simply asks that this be done with a measure of humility and a willingness to accept that other Christians of good faith, reasonable intelligence, and spiritual sensitivity may come to different conclusions.
Nonetheless, Stackhouse is critical of Anabaptists’ historical insistence upon privileging the Gospels and the life of Jesus as the lens through which the rest of Scripture is to be read and the template for Christian engagement with culture. In his view, this has neither literary (because Jesus didn’t actually write anything and all we have are someone else’s accounts of what he said and did) nor theological merit (Jesus had a unique and central part to play in the grand narrative of Scripture, but ours is not identical). The first criticism seems misguided. The fact that Jesus didn’t write the Gospels hardly seems to warrant dislodging them from the central place Anabaptists have historically accorded them. They are the only record we have of Christ, the clearest self-revelation of God we have (Col. 2:9). If we wish to call ourselves “Christ-followers,” the accounts of how he lived (even if we are not called to do everything he did) ought to function as a kind of canon with the broader canon of Scripture. This is not to say that other parts of Scripture are “less inspired” only that Jesus is the hinge of history, the climax of God’s story, and God’s solution to the problem of sin, death, and evil. The Gospels represent our most direct access to the object of our faith and hope, and Anabaptists need not apologize for according them special status in our attempt to live as his followers in the cultures we find ourselves.
Stackhouse’s emphasis on the whole story of God’s mission and our vocation within it does, however, offer something of a corrective to how some Anabaptists have understood our posture to culture. Anabaptists have, at times, viewed culture as simply an evil to be rejected as an act of imitating Jesus. After all, Jesus lived an ascetic lifestyle, spoke harshly about some elements of the culture in which he lived, and commanded a radical allegiance to the kingdom of God above all else. Here Stackhouse’s discussion of vocation is helpful. Our question ought not simply to be “What would Jesus do?” but “What would Jesus want me or us to do here and now?” We are not Jesus, we are not in first-century Palestine, and we are not called to embody the unexpected judgment and culmination of the story of Israel. We are not called to play the role Jesus did in God’s story. We are called to live faithfully—to love God and our neighbors—in the part of God’s story we find ourselves.
Making the Best of It will leave the reader with much to think about. Stackhouse’s commendation of an epistemological humility is, perhaps, the most welcome and necessary element of the book. None of us, as limited and sinful human beings, ought to claim that we, alone, understand how we are to live for Christ in the cultures we find ourselves. Overall, this book represents a highly readable and thought-provoking resource for anyone interested in the question of how we are to think and act, for Christ, in the cultures in which we find ourselves.