Monday, July 20, 2015

BookPastor >> "Becoming Worldly Saints" (Michael Wittmer)

Is it possible to be a Christian and still enjoy life? 

This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint on May 8th, 2015.


TITLE: Becoming Worldly Saints: Can You Serve Jesus and Still Enjoy Your Life?
AUTHOR: Michael E. Wittmer
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2015, (208 pages).

Is it possible to be a Christian and still enjoy life? How can we practice a faith that is both world-affirming as well as world-denying? What does it mean to live in this world and not be of the world? Simply put, just because we are Christian does not make us less human. Just because we are called to be saints does not mean we are no longer sinners. Just because we are heaven bound does not mean we ignore our life on earth. In fact, we are called to live out heaven on this earth.  In order to do this, author and Professor of Systematic Theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, Michael Wittmer affirms the joy that every believer can exhibit, whether serving, working, or enjoying this present life. We need a larger narrative that is able to embrace both the "high purpose of heaven" as well as the "normal pleasures of earth." When we do affirm both together, we are saying no to the extremes of naturalism and spiritualism. The former is fixated on things physical and existential while the latter tends toward an extreme version of supernaturalism.

Wittmer helps us appreciate the one biblical story through four aspects: Creation, Meaning, Fall, Redemption. In doing so, we are led through various aspects of life's paradoxes. We are liberated in Christ, yet are subjected to the Lordship of Christ. We are concerned about present human suffering but also mindful of the eternal suffering. Two distinctions are emphasized. The first is that of the natural and the supernatural. The second is the unique distinction of us being redeemed despite our fallen nature, which ought to inform our mission whether we are giving people a fish or teaching them how to fish. In much Christian humanitarian work, people tend to focus on doing things for people. However, the greatest need for all people is Christ. He offers two pieces of encouragement.
  1. It is impossible to do only what is important. We still need to do the routine and mundane stuff of life.
  2. There will always be a tension between what we do and what we ought to do, a tricky balance between earthly and heavenly mindedness.
The book is then framed in four parts. Part One is on Creation and Part Two on the Meaning of Life. Both according to Wittmer "may not seem sufficiently Christian" to some readers mainly because it deals more with earthly things like pleasure and purpose.  Our bodies are good and our pleasures are desirable. The material world has inherent value and we must not forget that Jesus died for the world. If God loves the world, why should we not do the same? When we fix our eyes heavenward on Jesus, does that mean we take our eyes off the world that God so loved? The key distinction is idolatry. Care for the world but do not turn them into some form of idolatry that pulls us away from God. Wittmer reminds us that as we look at the four narratives of Scripture, many Christians tend to begin their Christianity at Redemption, ignoring the beauty of creation, downplaying the reality of the Fall, and shoehorning themselves into things redemptive and restoration. When this happens, there is that undue focus on heaven and salvation that leads to a neglect of creation. 

This book brings us back earthward with snippets of how the Scriptures point ourselves back to the value of earth. The kingdom of God is like the treasure hidden on earth. It is like yeast that works itself over. It is in plain service to the people, the communities, and the world we live in. It is in cultivating a life that is reflective of God's command to care for the earth. It is respecting the gift of rest. It is to have a holistic view of calling. Then, just as readers are beginning to swim in the pond of beauty and serenity, Wittmer throws them into the sea of a broken world. We face the problem of sin. We experience the reality of death. In seeing the brokenness and fallen nature of the world, we experience a profound need for Jesus. We are prevented from becoming infatuated with false notions of earth being the happiest place in the universe as we see the world as God sees it. In the same way, just as we are about to enter into the ocean of despair, we get the lifeboat of redemption and healing. If earth is good, new earth is better. If heaven is a wonderful place, being with God will be much more desirable. The key to this progressiveness is to remember God coming to make all things new.

Yes, it is possible to follow Christ and still enjoy life. Wittmer concludes his work with three keys: Critique, Charity, and Contentment. In critique, we learn there is no one-size-fits-all playbook. Each perspective will always have limitations. Learning the best (as well as the worst) of both will help us appreciate the potential and purpose. At the same time, we must be careful not to make a god out of our own positions. That is why we need charity to know that God is over all, and we are not to judge others or other positions as if we are gods. This will prepare us toward contentment, which is how becoming worldly saints will lead us toward.

Life itself is a paradox and Wittmer's work shows us exactly that. More importantly, he is showing us that there is no one-size-fits-all perspective. Even the title of this book is subject to scrutiny and criticisms. Some would say that the term "worldly saints" is already an oxymoron. How can a saint be worldly? How can a worldly person even be a saint? Is it a new form of syncretism for Christian living? These are tough questions that cannot be easily answered. This book may not answer all the questions but it is a bold attempt to try to make sense to both sides. In doing so, it may have lost its sharp focus which many of us are more comfortable with. The concern I have is this. In standing for almost everything, we may have unwittingly lost the ground to stand for something.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

1 comment:

Michele Morin said...

Your review of this book reminds me of The Things of Earth by Joe Rigney (Crossway). He, too, examines the Christian's relationship with, well . . . the things of earth.
Thanks for this review. I always enjoy getting a snapshot of a book I've not encountered yet!

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