This is the final part of my multi-part engagement with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. My dialogue with the book commences in my first part (link); you may want to begin reading there. The book is about how white people, while participants and beneficiaries of systemic racism, are racially blind to themselves and complicit. So far I have engaged with DiAngelo’s arguments through the lens of my own reflection, and in the previous post (link) I explored some biblical themes that support her view. What she reveals about racism is well argued, but how do we move towards a dynamic of resolution? In this part my intent is to show how I find it more helpful to look beyond DiAngelo’s ideology for that, and, in particular, I draw on a Christian understanding of vocation.


Part 3b – Vocation and identity.

There is much that resonates between DiAngelo and the Biblical voice. But there is also some discord. DiAngelo, is unashamedly, manifesting an ideology. “Ideologies are the frameworks through which we are taught to represent, interpret, understand, and make sense of social existence” (page 21), she says, and I agree with that definition. In fact, from a Christian point of view, a desire to shape our social existence by what Jesus “represents, interprets, understands, and makes sense of” is a decent description of what I would call “discipleship.”

Ideologically of course, DiAngelo is not neutral. I also don’t think she, or anyone else, would describe her ideology as “Christian.” Some dialogue is needed at the point where the voices diverge, and that is my intent here. Unsurprisingly, I find the Biblical voice more compelling.

Consider what we raised previously about individual and collective identity. DiAngelo eschews individualism, and understandably so, because it underpins the white propensity to deflect: “I don’t belong to a privileged class, I am just me!”  If we are to move forward, we can’t ignore individualism. Generalisation reveals, but individuals must act. This only happens when there is some sort of alignment between individual and collective identity, i.e. when a person has a sense of ownership about what is happening collectively.

DiAngelo has rightly revealed to white people our collective guilt. But how do we move forward with that? Collective guilt can only be dealt with collectively, because that is what is required for systemic change. It is manifest formally as enacted civil rights and forms of reparation and restitution, as well as organically through shifts in the dominant culture. No one person can achieve this, yet it doesn’t just happen by itself, it requires individuals to act. And, as DiAngelo points out often, it’s on white people to own their issues and do it, not people of colour to chase it.

To move forward we need an alignment of individuals and the collective. DiAngelo, in her anecdotes, often encounters a non-alignment. From one direction it looks like individualist defensiveness. From the other direction, an individual can be absorbed by the collective guilt. I’ve seen this as a form of despair in people, an emotional overwhelming in which they are unhelpfully stuck in the shame of their privilege.

The biggest strength of White Fragility is that it elucidates well what is wrong and what is going on. Admission is a big part of the solution; but beyond that the there is only a weak provision for the alignment we need.

It can be found, however, in the Biblical voice. Indeed, it’s there in the person of Jesus. What is the cross of Christ if it is not the perfect alignment of an individual carrying the load of collective guilt? “He himself bore our sins” says Peter (1 Peter 2:24), along with a multitude of other New Testament witnesses. It is the very essence of atonement and and it leads to redemption and reconciliation. The implications are also clear: Atonement neither excuses or permits ongoing complicity with evil and injustice. Rather, it compels that our bodies be used as “instruments or righteousness” (Romans 6:13). Christian spirituality looks to a process of sanctification in which the individual matures in cooperation with the work of the Holy Spirit, into repentance, amendment of wrongdoing, and increasing Christlikeness. An aspect of that is understanding how we are called and led to interact within the collective of the church, humanity, and the wider world. Our word for this is vocation. It is grounded in forgiveness and freedom and is towards the righting of wrongs, and the renewal of the world.

Vocation is individual-and-collective in character.  The individual Christian is caught up into a collective marked by the name of Jesus. We refer to the “body of Christ”, one body united with many members or parts.  As an individual-in-community, I am responsible for manifesting Christ’s character to my brothers and sisters, and I am a “gift” as I serve in the particular way that I am enabled, impassioned, and inspired by God’s Spirit and truth.

When it comes to responding to racial realities, true vocation is a pathway forward. It is defined by Christ, and therefore counters self-absorption, deflection, and blindness to sin. It also incorporates a freedom from despair.  It is active to pursue what is good and what is right; the individual finds their place to move the collective towards the justice desired.  Today’s vocational prophets speak truth, the pastors care and mend lives, the healers heal, the wisdom-bringers speak, and so on. DiAngelo speaks the truth about white people. Vocation values this truth, and is also grace-filled towards the pursuit of self-awareness, goodness, and justice.

In this regard, vocation interacts, helpfully, with privilege. It would take an entire essay to examine this properly, but we can take a quick look: In 1 Corinthians 12, St. Paul explores the individual-in-collective image of the “body”. In that exploration he recognises differences with regards to “honour.”  There is a close correlation, I believe, between that sense of societal honour and what we might call “privilege.”  Here’s the point: Paul’s reason for raising it is to turn it upside down. We should “treat with special honour” those who are otherwise “less honourable” (1 Corinthians 12:23). We privilege the underprivileged. We should favour those who have been unfavoured.

There’s a corollary here that I believe DiAngelo, herself, recognises: privilege itself is not a sin. I didn’t ask to be white and male. I didn’t deliberately locate myself in a situation where I had access to good education. I have received the blessing of a healthy marriage and loving children; something that was neither owed to me or inevitable in life. The moral, and vocational question is not whether I am privileged or not, but what am I going to do with it. Again, the Biblical voice informs us. The character of vocation rests on Christ’s character of kenosis, i.e. self-emptying. Christ didn’t cling to his divine glory, but offered himself to the vulnerable, even laying down his life (Philippians 2:1-11). We are called to share this “mind of Christ”, and treat whatever we may have in the same way, i.e. self-sacrificially. If we have privilege, we don’t cling to it. We certainly don’t ignore it, or our complicity in whatever prevents others from attaining it. Rather we spend it out in the direction of goodness and justice. If I find myself with power, I don’t hold it to myself, I use it to empower those who are disempowered. This means it’s a self-effacing empowerment, even a handing-over-of-power empowerment.

In this way the Biblical affirmation of vocation is not antagonistic to the values of White Fragility, but it is more useful. 

Before we conclude, however, I need to address one point of discord between the Biblical voice and DiAngelo’s ideology. I’m hesitant to do this, as the value of White Fragility stands alone as a prophetic voice revealing white racism. Nor is DiAngelo setting out a fulsome treatise of her ideological foundations. Nevertheless, to the extent that I can discern her framework through which she can “represent, interpret, understand, and make sense of social existence” I find myself looking for ground that is more solid, from which to heed the truth she speaks. The discord is around the dynamics of identity and intersectionality.

Identity is a complex thing, and fundamental to our self-understanding. If I can ask and answer “Who am I?” I’m expressing my identity. A significant component will be how I see myself as an internal self-reflection; DiAngelo recognises this, for instance, with respect to the complexity of a multiracial person (page xii). There is a also a multiplicity of external characteristics by which I might self-identify and through which I might relate. “I am white, but I am also a cisgender woman, able-bodied, and middle-aged”, she says (page xii). What is dominantly expressed as my identity will often be driven by social context. DiAngelo’s whole project is to force those who do not see themselves racially to face that characteristic and its social context, and incorporate the results into their perceived and articulated identity. This is the value of the book.

As the social characteristics of identity intertwine we end up with what has come to be known as “intersectionality.” We find ourselves at the intersection of social categorisations, a complexity of different identifying markers – race, gender, sexuality, class and so on. Intersectional analysis can be and often is beneficial. It is a means by which we might explore ourselves-in-context. Again, DiAngelo’s project is to confront white people with their disinclination to undertake that exploration.

However, intersectionality is an intractable problem. It has the same shape as DiAngelo’s book; it can reveal much, but, in and of itself, that revelation alone does not effect change well.

Intersectionality reveals the complexity of human existence; I am writing this in the aftermath of the assault and murder of of Sarah Everard.  I am hearing the pain of women. The male-female social identity is being tested and explored right now, and rightly so. I am also hearing the pain of people of colour, pointing out how many black women have been murdered and who haven’t received the same attention as this white woman. It’s pain upon pain, at an intersection of two categories of identity. We don’t wish to despise or diminish either of them.

The complexity, however, reveals the intractability. The social categories are not mere labels on dynamics which are otherwise the same shape; they rub up against each other in different ways. It can even lead to a form of unhelpful division. That’s not with regard to division within a social category; White Fragility has been a healthy exploration partly because it refuses to ignore the racial divide. What I mean is an eventual competition between categories; race vs. gender, gender vs. sexuality, religious identity vs. class and so on.

Here’s the ideological collision: It seems to me that DiAngelo’s ideology attempts to look for the solution inside the intersectional black hole, as if it can be fathomed, and ordered, and solved. It can’t be. We might be able to elucidate and bring justice to one social categorisation. But that intersects with another, and another, and sometimes they are at odds. We do what we can do make a judgement of rightness and wrongness within the finite categorisations that we can explore, but we are finite. There’s a reason why we appeal to the infinite wisdom of the divine to bring about judgement and make things right! We can’t do it. We certainly can’t do it justly.

We all look into the intersectional blackhole. We all latch on to the identities that most adhere to our self-understanding. They are generally the ones that most correlate to our sense of pain and shame. We grasp hold of them, and we cry “What about me?!” So which of us has the right to rise above it all?

DiAngelo is unashamedly a believer in “identity politics”: “All progress we have made in the real of civil rights has been accomplished through identity politics” (page x) and she lists everything from women’s suffrage to same-sex marriage and even the recognition of the white working class in the 2016 presidential election. She is revealing her intersectional hierarchy. I am, at least to some extent, in agreement with it, as I hope I have demonstrated in this engagement with the book.  But I am also very very wary of absolutising it. Civil rights are good, objectively so, and certainly within the social categories in which we dare to explore our complicity and fault. But civil rights action is not commensurate with bringing order to the intersectional chaos.

If intersectionality is a nexus of oppression, then it can only be ordered by those powerful enough to assert a hierarchy of identity, by those with the dominance to set the meta-narrative in which the social identities exist. This inevitably is a new form of oppression; all it does is shift the injustice, and the intersectional twirl finds a different oppressive equilibrium.  Paulo Freire warned of this years ago. In today’s world, for instance, the “fight” between feminism and transgenderism is over the narrative that defines womanhood, and consequently, personhood. It is essentially a conflict about intersectional ordering. In my world, the phenomenon of “cancel culture” is invariably a diminution of the religious or spiritual identity. Ironically, and this is one of those intersectional complexities, in discounting spiritual and religious identity many purveyors of identity politics are complicit in racism. Generally speaking, white progressives value spiritual and religious identity less than people of colour do.

An attempt to assert intersectional order is a form of domination. The extent to which those who aspire to identity politics cannot see this, is the extent to which they, themselves, are blind to themselves; it is the extent to which they have arrogantly placed themselves above the fray, and consider their own hierarchy of identities as “normal” and others as deficient. They both ignore and perpetuate the injustices that eventuate and are thereby complicit in them. I wouldn’t be the first to point out that many of them are white, and middle class, and are fragile in this exposure.

Here is what I affirm: If we reach into the intersectional quagmire, and examine the category of racial identity, White Fragility, is one of the best resources I’ve come across. It is instructive, truthful, helpful, challenging, and properly uncomfortable. I have literally had sleepless nights dissecting that discomfort, and working out how to not just leave this volume behind like yet another book, but apply it in my racial world. I am now more aware of the defensiveness and fragility that DiAngelo speaks of, and it has taught me about myself. I have much, much more to learn about systemic racism. I have received a cajoling in which I must recognise my white privilege, amend my individual ways, and use that privilege vocationally, towards collective justice.

However, on the same grounds, I cannot endorse a broader intersectional ideology.  It is not an effective pathway to real peace, or justice. In fact, I only see more despair, darkness, fracture, and pain when I see people move from an exploration of the world’s evils, and a resolve to attend to them, to take on the posture of a more universal judge.

Maybe I’m mistaken. Maybe it’s just my turn to learn about an everyday calculus of suffering, and to find myself at the bottom of the intersectional heap of those who have power and privilege. I mean, that’s sort of what Jesus did.

But I also look for hope. And I have only ever found that in Jesus, in whom I have been made new. My identity is first in him – everything else has been, is being, and will be surrendered to him – and all will be made well in him. I look for the day when I can run to Jesus and easily find in my vicinity – running ahead, and already there – black, brown, and all manner of brothers and sisters, with whom we share the deepest love of all.

Without that hope, I fall apart. Maybe I’m fragile after all.

This is the beginning of the third part of a multi-part review of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. The topic of discussion is systemic racism and, in particular, the collective blindness of white people towards their racial bias. In my first part (link) I explored DiAngelo’s observations by analogy with the phenomenon of classism. In the second part (link) I explored my own racial ignorance as a white person. DiAngelo does well to describe the problem of white fragility. In this part I am moving towards a focus on the question of “What we do in respons?” This will be the subject of my final post. I am not looking for a quick easy-fix, but aspiring to a dynamic of resolve towards white people owning their part in the world in which we live.


Part 3a – Religious resonance

DiAngelo does well. It’s hard to articulate a problem in a context beset by blindness. She’s persistent, and holds our nose to it until we can smell it. It can be an unpleasant experience, but it’s honest, and useful. But what does she imagine as a way forward?

At one level, it is obvious. DiAngelo is keen for white people to engage with “cross-racial skill building” (page 7), and hopes for when feedback about “our unaware yet inevitable racism” might be “graciously received” (page 113). I can certainly get on board with that aspiration; emotional honesty and humility are graspable virtues!  The guidelines she, herself, attempts to follow (page 125) are instructive for anyone in a position of power and privilege. Her own experience of “owning” her racism (page 145) is a demonstration of emotionally honest, humble, relational living. If only these were more prevalent! I want more of this in myself. I want more of this in the communities and churches in which I participate and lead!

What DiAngelo describes in her hoped-for response reflects aspects of what I might call “confession” and “grace.”  The one who is at fault, owns the problem, and doesn’t deflect. The one who is harmed, in a context of freedom, may offer a gift of illumination and help increase understanding. “Having racist assumptions is inevitable (but possible to change), I will feel gratitude when an unaware racist assumption is pointed out…” (page 132). I need this. We all need this. If this is all that eventuates from books like this, that alone would be significant, and good!

My aim here, however, is to look a little deeper. To do that I am going to do my best to bring a Christian theological lens to bear. There will be some positive resonance, as well as some differences. However, before I proceed further, I need to recognise – and hopefully disclaim – a real phenomenon: I am becoming aware of how phrases such as “biblical worldview” and even “Christian” can intertwine with the exact forms of white privilege that DiAngelo has illuminated. Christianity has often (but far from always) played the part of the white man’s religion, and its forms have been used to sustain and justify segregation and white supremacy, just as DiAngelo has described. Even the beautiful eschatological vision of an ethnically diverse renewed humanity caught up together in eternal worship can be misused; “We are all one in Christ!” is over-realised eschatology, and harmful, when that unity is not actually present in the present.  Is the truth and certainty of ultimate renewal grounds for ignoring present sin? me genoito! Certainly not!

The Christian worldview can be perverted by whiteness, and my hope of disclaiming that is this: I sit at the brown-skinned feet of a crucified-and-risen man, reading the Scriptures that he read, upheld, and fulfilled. Within those pages I encounter and aspire to pathways of truth first walked by slaves, excluded women, African eunuchs, all manner of people who do not look like me. In the contemporary world I have received more spiritual food from the hermeneutics of black revivalism then the culturally-appropriating white-washed liberalism of the dominant ecclesial paradigm. I am far from fully sanctified, but this I know: Christian spirituality is not only a valid voice to hear, but a source of wisdom, more ancient, more universal, than any other perspective I’ve ever encountered. Moreover, it has a mystic ability to divide soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and do the deep work beyond what we can ask or imagine. In its truest form, it is exactly what is needed to give sight to the racially blind.

The Biblical witness often harmonises with DiAngelo’s position. Sometimes this is against the rhetoric of those who might claim a “Biblical worldview” but are actually far from it. For instance, an absolutist individualism is not biblical. DiAngelo posits a sense of both collective guilt and individual complicity: We aren’t just “handed” our privilege as white people, the “systematic dimensions of racism… must be actively and passively, consciously and unconsciously, maintained” (page 64). The individual can’t just simply deflect on to the collective; it is wrong to “exempt the person from any responsibility for or participation in the problem.” (page 78). This is not a foreign theme in the Biblical narrative.

The Old Testament writings, especially, interweave that sense of systemic injustice into the deeper sense of idolatry and rebellion against the heart of God. Amongst myriad examples is the prophet Amos (5:14) who cries,  “Seek good, not evil, that you may live. Then the Lord God Almighty will be with you, just as you say he is.” That evil is not just individual moralism, it’s against the “fat cows of Bashan” (Amos 4:1) who “make it hard to the poor.” His summary introduction is against Israel collectively who “deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:7). The prophetic injunction is to a people – usually God’s people – not just to individual persons. My few short words here are not enough to express it – go and read the Bible! But heed the heart of God that is revealed. God responds to collective as well as individual guilt. He will even broken-heartedly take his people, collectively, into exile, because of their unrepented injustice, and so seek a change in their heart and their ways. The Western church should take heed!

We can conceive of a people, experiencing systemic harm, crying out to God, “How long, oh Lord? Remember us!”. We can conceive of him hearing, and heeding. There are some deep, deep expressions of this in the history of the black gospel movements. It is thoroughly biblical.

Moreover, God’s gracious gospel invitation, in Jesus, is to belong as an individual to a unified collective. This is most profoundly expressed by the image of a “body” – a diversity of members in a dynamic whole. St. Paul, especially, uses this image (see 1 Corinthians 12), He expresses it in a way that upturns the normal social defaults of his day. The gospel invites us into this common-union and this invitation is not a matter of affirmed privilege, but a belonging-to-one-another life of kenotic (self-emptying) transformation.

DiAngelo’s sense of collective guilt, and privileged complicity, therefore, should not offend us Christians. It’s part of our worldview. When exploring ourselves racially, we would do well to pray, together, along with the psalmist, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23-4). Or is that only about acceptably-white personal trespasses like drinking alcohol and fornicating?

Indeed, in my mind, the Biblical voices are more consistent than DiAngelo herself. This is certainly the case when it comes to grasping the concept of “guilt”.  DiAngelo appropriately uses this language, e.g. “Anti-blackness comes from deep guilt about what we have done and continue to do; the unbearable knowledge of our complicity with the profound torture of black people from past to present” (page 94, emphasis mine). Given that, it is utterly incongruous that towards the end of the book, she refuses the language for herself: “… I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns, and investments in the racist system that has elevated me. Still, I don’t feel guilty about racism. I didn’t chose [sic] this socialization, and it could not be avoided. But I am responsible for my role in it. to the degree that I have done my best in each moment to interrupt my participation, I can rest with a clearer conscience…”  (page 149, emphasis mine). Perhaps, at this point, she is simply using it as a descriptor of emotion, i.e. “guilty feelings.” Nevertheless, her entire book has revolved around an honesty about guilt, but, here, at the end she steps herself back and couches it in terms of self-justifying attempts at a clear conscience. “I’ve done my best” – isn’t that a deflection?

The thing is, I don’t think this undermines her argument. Like all of us, DiAngelo is fragile when faced with being counted as guilty. I don’t disparage her for it. The Biblical voices are well-used to this phenomenon. A common objection to the gospel is the ever-present retort: “I don’t need anyone’s forgiveness, I’ve done my best!”  In this way the gospel is more consistent than DiAngelo; the gospel will not let us ignore our complicity and guilt in the fracture of this world, including it’s systems of injustice and pain. It will not even let us deflect towards our own good efforts. “All have fallen short”, Paul famously says (Romans 3:23).

The Biblical voice is also more robust than DiAngelo when it comes to shame. This a complex issue and there are two interwoven senses to understand. Firstly, shaming can be a malicious act of “othering” someone to diminish them and exercise power over them. But, secondly, someone can be “ashamed” in a healthy way, when they become aware not only of acting wrongly but having a propensity to act wrongly – i.e. that wrongness is in their character somehow. The gospel, literally, is about God entering into, inhabiting, and transforming our shame. It therefore relies on this second, honest, transformative sense. The gospel is rejected, however, when it is perceived in the first sense; when it is perceived as a malicious power-play, shame triggers our fragility, and we respond in defense. It is absolutely evident, in White Fragility, DiAngelo is shaming white people,  because there is guilt and we do have a propensity to perpetuate the systemic injustice! I believe she is doing so with the transformative intent, but she is encountering the defenses of the other perception.

The Biblical voice affirms the possibility of white fragility. And why not? After all, we Christians have a deep heritage in studying sin! I may speak, theologically, of “original sin,” or of an innate propensity to act seflishly and unjustly as part of our broken human community; I might even call this “depravity.”  DiAngelo speaks of “habitus”, an interplay of free will and societal structures which maintains our comfort and equilibrium (page 103). I then might speak of the “heart being deceitful” (Jeremiah 17:9). Surely these concepts are not foreign to each other?

In fact, as a professional sin-studier, I might dare to offer a little advice: One of the critiques of DiAngelo’s approach, in the sense that it doesn’t help white people talk about racism, is her imprecision with regard to sin. I see this in her use of loaded terms like “white supremacy” applied almost indiscriminately. It’s a term that connotes overt acts of violence and assault. Yet, applied to broadly, it would also cover lesser sins such as a mildly-negligent use of racist idiom in a conversation. This doesn’t excuse either act, but it is unhelpfully imprecise. I get that she’s pushing towards a common root of systemic white superiority, and that is appropriate. But we Christians do that too, and we have learned the limits of it. Our word “sin” also has a broad semantic range, grounded in a common root, and it also can be applied to anything from the cruel, malicious, literally diabolic oppressions of human empire, through to the complex inclinations of an otherwise innocent thought life. I’ve reflected it on that previously, and have suggested that we needed adjustments in our phraseology in order to communicate our intent, open the door to repentance and change, and not trigger misunderstanding and defensiveness. We don’t want to ignore sin and shame, but we also actually want to break the shame-cycle, not reinforce it.

Nevertheless, the Biblical voice does recognise the times when the root cause of sin needs to be revealed. DiAngelo uses a big stick, and it’s likely warranted. Jesus himself, tired of the religious deflections and excuses of his day, also uses amplification to uncover what is hidden and persistent:  “You have heard it said, do not murder… but I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment..” (Matthew 5:21). You can’t hide behind “done my best” and “I’m not a racist”, you must examine the heart and the root of the matter.

There is much that resonates between DiAngelo and the Biblical voice. But there is some discord also, particularly at the ideological level. DiAngelo has wisdom and insight, but the Biblical voices, in the end, offer more hope and a clearer way forward. This will be the subject of the final part of my engagement with White Fragility.


This is the second part of a multi-part review of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. This book explores how white people struggle to engage with the reality of racism in our society; we do not understand ourselves racially, and are blind to how we participate in and contribute to inequality and the manifest bias against people of colour. In the first part (link) of my review I attempted to grasp DiAngelo’s argument by using analogy; I correlated her observations regarding white racism with the cultural blindness of the English middle class. In this part I now seek to apply DiAngelo’s points to myself; I admit that I am playing an equivalent part, in racial terms, to what the middle class has played in my immigrant experience.


Part 2 – Exploring my ignorance.

A book like this cannot be read objectively. The main point of my analogy, in the first part, is to demonstrate why I, myself, might be racially unaware, and unable to taste the water I’m swimming in.

To that end, I need to admit to some anxiety. I don’t feel the privilege of being of white. I know that, relatively speaking to so many others, I am privileged. Many of these privileges, ironically, are attached to assumptions of middle class success. But I don’t feel the racial privilege. I have seen acts of racism against my friends and neighbours, and, perhaps, have some internal gratitude that I don’t have to weather those storms. But race isn’t embedded in the calculus of my life.

Instead, my self-awareness, (and I’m confident I’m not alone in this), attends to where I do feel underprivileged. I am, for instance, an immigrant outsider to self-seeding ecclesial networks, my path did not lead to cushy jobs (which, to be fair, I no longer aspire to) or obvious financial security, and I’ve never worn an old school tie in my life! Like the anecdotal antagonist on DiAngelo’s very first page (“A white person can’t get a job anymore!”), I do not feel empowered. In fact, I often feel excluded, in particular, by those with the formal and informal power to categorise me – and perhaps even “cancel” me – because of a privilege (white, male, straight) that I never asked for, and can do nothing about. And, in complete awareness that I am writing this freely and publicly, and that I literally own a right to a public-speaking platform – I often feel voiceless, unheard, ignorable, different, alone.

But this is exactly where I think DiAngelo has a valid exhortation: It’s my job to get over that anxiety, and, to be honest, to get over myself! Perhaps there is some injustice in my own broader experience, but that does not give me an “out” by which I can ignore other exclusionary dynamics, particularly racial ones, in which, whether I like it or not, I am a participant and a beneficiary.

What I have realised, from this book, is that with regard to racism, I have much to learn. I hadn’t clocked, for instance, how something as ostensibly benign as “white women’s tears” (page 134) could actually, and understandably, express racial power dynamics. That example clicked on a small light, and left me thinking, “if that is the case, then what else?”

A helpful pathway into my ignorance was the correlation with gender. I cannot be “colour-blind” in my relationships, just as I cannot be “gender-blind” (see page 81). The bias is there; for any number of reasons I will relate to a woman differently than to a man. The vast majority of those reasons are socially accepted, therefore I can admit to them, process them, and adjust them to ensure that they are not deleterious to anyone, including myself. But DiAngelo is right: As a white person, I have not had the opportunity or particular inclination to examine my racial bias. That effective denial of bias “ensures that we won’t examine or change them” (page 11). In short, I need to “name my race.”

… a critical component of cross-racial skill building is the ability to sit with the discomfort of being seen racially, of having to proceed as if our race matters (which it does). Being seen racially is a common trigger of white fragility, and thus, to build our stamina, white people must face the first challenge: naming our race.
(Page 7)

To be clear, I am not on some crusade of virtuous self-flagellation here. I can make some robust assessment of myself: I truly don’t think I am guilty of overt or even aversive racism; I don’t consciously exhibit “racial disdain that surfaces in [my] daily discourse” (page 45). Similarly, I don’t share all of DiAngelo’s experiences. She reflects that “not one person who loved me, guided me, or taught me ever conveyed that segregation deprived me of anything of value” (page 67). That is simply not my personal experience. In fact, the opposite is true; my wife and I have experienced a diversity of cultural contexts, including ones that are multiracial, and when we find ourselves confined to an echo-chamber of progressive liberal whiteness we feel the deprivation of that segregation. And let me tell you about how the prophetic presence of an Iranian community impacted a previously pale church community one day!

However, as DiAngelo reinforces, racism is a system, not an event. It pertains not to my individual experience, but to the privilege of my racial class, a class which was invented by white colonials in order to protect that privilege. The ignorance I need to reflect on relates to my complicity to this system, this world. To a large degree, this is necessarily about admitting ignorance and deliberately informing myself.

I can, for instance, reflect on what DiAngelo presents as the “common set of racial patterns” engendered by our socialisation(page 68). These are characteristics of the white collective, things like “preference for racial segregation”, a “lack of understanding of what racism is”, and “seeing ourselves as individuals, exempt from the forces of racial socialization.”  I can observe aspects of these in myself. I know, for instance, that I have “focused on intentions over impact”; I can remember nervously washing away someone’s awkward casual racist remark by asserting that “no harm was meant.”  In other ways, I’m open to instruction. I don’t think I have, for instance, a submerged and “internalised assumption of racial superiority” (page 55), but would be glad to have it revealed to me. I’d rather deal with it, if it’s there, than pretend it away. In this way it is more uncomfortable, and and also more useful, to be open to my complicity in the disproportionate advancement of white people as a collective.

The reality is that I simply do not have to think about being white. For sure, I live in a multicultural area, and I can see how my race might be impediment for certain church activities; to that extent I realise I am white. But I don’t have to think about it. As I think and dream and imagine my life, my whiteness is simply not a factor. To that extent, I am a beneficiary of some key sociological resources, of “self-worth, visibility, positive expectations, psychological freedom from the tether of race, freedom of movement, the sense of belonging, and a sense of entitlement to all of the above” (page 25).

I had assumed that this book was, in the main, going to give me an insight into the lived experience of people of colour. It does, of course, do that to some extent. But that is not the point; its intent is to give an insight into the white lived experience of ignoring or diminishing people of colour. It is actually more confronting. If it had been a book on how ethnic minorities experience racism, it may have left me informed, perhaps even angered, but, in the end, only objectively. In fact, I would have likely had a moment of self-congratulation for being open to understanding the plight of my non-white brother and sisters. White Fragility is more prophetic than that; it holds our feet in the racial story, so that we might understand our part.

Truth, however, takes a while to inhabit and explore. DiAngelo has given me a map of my ignorance, but it’s up to me walk those trails myself. Like all maps, it turns what is unknown into “known unknowns”. This book has given me the lie of the land of the racial privilege from which I benefit, the extent of my likely unconscious complicity, and, to a certain degree, what I might do about it.

However, it’s that last question – what to do about it – where DiAngelo is less helpful. If I may draw on a religious example: White Fragility is like God’s good law; it rightly, justly, appropriately, reveals what is wrong and our part in it… and yet I sense little power by which it can make things right.  I will explore this further in the next part.

I’m reviewing this book with some trepidation. It is far from my field of expertise. It is not a Christian book. It interacts with a topic that invokes emotional as well thoughtful response. It’s a serious book about serious things with which we must seriously engage.

The broad issue that White Fragility touches upon, of course, is systemic and cultural racism. We might instantly think, therefore, that the focus is on people of colour. That’s a telling assumption which raises the exact issue that the author is focused on, as per the subtitle: The problem is “Why it’s so hard for white people to talk about racism.”

The author is Robin DiAngelo, an academic and a professional in the area of diversity training. The illustrative anecdotes she brings from her experience ground her discourse. It’s unfortunate that this attaches the book very closely to the US context, but that does not diminish its value for the broader Western and post-colonial world.

My reflections are going to come in a number of parts, spread out over a number of posts on this blog. I will be “wrestling out loud”, so to speak, and doing so in response to the DiAngelo’s focus. She is articulating an observation about white people, and I am a white person. I have gone through some difficult introspection as a result of this book, but I am not laying claim to any emotional hardship. In all that follows, I will simply be seeking to follow the aim of my blog; it’s a “wild attempt at thinking things through.”  We live in a racially charged world which white people are often blind to, or deny – this is our white fragility. What are the dynamics behind that? How might we own what we need to own up to and act upon it well? I welcome any feedback and critique. I am on a learning curve.

My intention is to engage with this book in three ways. The first part is included below. The second and third part will come in subsequent posts, which I will link here when they are uploaded: Part 2, Part 3a, Part 3b

Firstly, in this post, I am going to try and understand by analogy. I will be drawing on my own experience of being an immigrant and of English classism. I want to be clear: I am not pretending that there is any equivalence between my experience and that of people of colour. I am, however, seeking to understand DiAngelo by applying her thoughts to something that is within my own comprehension. I participated in some racial awareness training recently and it affirmed a similar approach; being aware of when we ourselves have been “othered” can, if held well, use empathy as a bridge to understanding.

Secondly, in a subsequent post, I’m going to try and admit my ignorance. This book does challenge and confront white people, and I am a white person. Having done my best to understand what the author is saying, I will aspire to allow myself to be undone by it, and examine myself racially. At the very least, I will try and find the bounds of my what I do not know.

Thirdly, in a one subsequent post, and then another, I will seek a dynamic of resolution. I come to this as someone aspiring to be a disciple of Jesus. This fundamentally forms and shapes how I will explore and interact with DiAngelo’s approach. I will discover much that mutually affirms, and also some philosophical collisions. Please note: I am not looking for a simplistic solution here, but what I’m calling a dynamic resolution, i.e. a pathway ahead towards what is right, to which I, for my part, can aspire.


Part 1 – Understanding by Analogy

When my family and I arrived in the UK in 2015 we found ourselves in the middle of “Middle England.” It was a significant cultural collision. We made many mistakes, and we sought to educate ourselves. Our encounter was with the sociological collective that we might generally call “The Middle Class.” At the time, I wrote about some of the reading I’d done as I struggled to understand.

I’m mentioning this not because I think there is an equivalence between classism and racism. Rather, it is a reflection using analogy; my understanding of one thing will inform my understanding of another thing. I have found myself agreeing with much of what DiAngelo says about white people because I have seen similar dynamics within the English middle class. I am also aware that I have only seen these because, as an immigrant, I have straddled the boundary of being on the “inside” and the “outside” of the normative group.  But let me say it again: I am not conflating.  A white immigrant’s experiences are grounded in aspects of identity, (e.g. accent, cultural presumptions), that are often positively received and generally excused or overlooked. All that my experience affords, if anything, is a glimpse under the sociological hood.

For instance, DiAngelo asserts from the very beginning that “being white has meaning” (page 2). As a group, white people do not see themselves as a racial category, but rather as a racial norm. This is a confronting truth. Many white people would dismiss it as a nonsense. I may have included myself in that number at one point but, from my cross-cultural experience, I now know what it means for a class of people to be blind to themselves while classifying others. I can grasp a little of the concept of whiteness in this regard, even if I can’t fully appreciate the impact of it.

Those on the inside of a “normative class” cannot taste the water they swim in. Immigrants do. In order to process the dynamics of their new situation, generalisations are needed: We have to be able to make conclusions: “Middle class English people exhibit a certain behaviour.”  This is necessary in order to navigate the world we have landed in and so minimise social and psychological injury. It does not mean that every middle class individual person acts that way. Similarly, DiAngelo, generalises about race, and unashamedly so (page 11). It offends the “cardinal rule of individualism” and our visceral white, middle class hatred of being managed as a herd. Yet we do act with some herd-like dynamics, and a lack of awareness is part of the problem. Those dynamics are maintained through what DiAngelo calls “socialization”; “we make sense of perceptions and experiences through our particular cultural lens” (page 9). Immigrants have to learn these perceptions, but for the dominant culture they just “are”, and are often unexamined.

Why this blindness? In the middle class there is often an underlying foundation of fear and shame: the fear of never quite being secure enough, and the shame of being comfortable when others are desperate. DiAngelo, speaking of whiteness, identifies defining ideologies such as individualism and objectivity. I can also detect these within the middle class; as a member of that group I learn (i.e. am socialised) to think of myself as fully in control of my own destiny, and able to impartially assess myself and others. By these means I can divest myself of responsibility for another’s misfortune, protect myself from their fate through objective assertions of why they are lesser, and unconsciously invest in a system that will maintain my conclusions. If we disrupt this system, we disrupt some deeply held self-protections; we are fragile. I can therefore comprehend why DiAngelo asserts: “We need to discuss white people as a group – even if doing so jars us – in order to disrupt our unracialized identities” (page 89).

I could see the power of the belief that only bad people were racist, as well as how individualism allowed white people to exempt themselves from the forces of socialization. I could see how we are taught to think about racism only as discrete acts committed by individual people, rather than as a complex, interconnected system. And in light of so many white expressions of resentment toward people of color, I realized that we see ourselves as entitled to, and deserving of, more than people of color deserve; I saw our investment in a system that serves us.
(Pages 3-4)

There are other analogical correlations as well. DiAngelo asserts that racism is “a structure not an event” (page 20). I find it interesting, and helpful, that her references to overt acts of racism are usually the illustrative beginnings to her broader argument; the overt is used to reveal the related, covert, hidden, systems. Again, without conflating, there is a correlation in classism: Overt acts of snobbery are relatively rare, and, after all, “it’s not like we put people in the workhouses anymore.” We do, however, define success, and restrict the pathways to it, in ways that “help” people to know their place and stay there. I can conceive of what DiAngelo means when she talks about “new racism”, “a term coined… to capture the ways in which racism has adapted over time so that modern norms, policies, and practices result in similar racial outcomes as those in the past, while not appearing to be explicitly racist” (page 39).

DiAngelo asserts that the “social forces that prevent us from attaining the racial knowledge we need” include “the ideologies of individualism and meritocracy, narrow and repetitive media representations of people of color, segregation in schools and neighbourhoods, depictions of whiteness as the human ideal, truncated history, jokes and warnings, taboos on openly talking about race, and white solidarity” (page 8).  I can elucidate at least one analogical example from this list: My children have gone to a good school and can do so by virtue of our address. We do, however, live in a “poor neighbourhood.” At some point the school’s catchment was arranged to include this neighbourhood. I suspect it was a deliberate attempt to help the lower classes. But here’s the observation: it is the children from the poorer, multi-racial neighbourhoods which are required to travel two miles uphill to get to the campus. It sits and belongs in the middle of a more affluent suburb. This is not an overt act of classism (or even racism in this case); nobody has said “let’s make it difficult for the poor kids and the BAME kids to get to school.” But somehow it’s ended up that way. It’s not the only example in the city I live in.

Here’s another correlation: DiAngelo asserts, “I believe white progressives cause the most daily damage of people of color” (page 5, her emphasis).  Her point, as I understand it, references those who see the evil in overt racism, and decry it, yet, in failing to realise their own complicity in systemic racism, end up reinforcing it. The correlation in classism is with regard to those who “care for the poor” in some way. I see this in church circles all the time; even when it is manifested in good things such as food banks, there is, so often, an entrenched “client-patron” model at work. It is unspoken but real: “I am here to help you. I am normal. You are a poor person.”

“White equilibrium is a cocoon of racial comfort, centrality, superiority, entitlement, racial apathy, and obliviousness, all rooted in an identity of being good people free of racism” (page 112). DiAngelo is not speaking nonsense. I’ve seen this dynamic with respect to class. But now I must seek to understand it with respect to race and my own whiteness. I need my equilibrium disturbed. When it comes to understanding racism, I must admit that I am playing an equivalent part, in racial terms, to what the middle class has played in my immigrant experience. In other words, I am likely to be unaware, and unable to taste the water I’m swimming in.

I must turn away from my known analogy, and do my best to understand myself racially. This will be the content of my second part.

It’s not often that I encounter a book that is both intellectually and emotionally stimulating. I picked up Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners as background reading for some upcoming conversations about sexuality in the Church of England. What I encountered were some deeper insightsThis isn’t really a book about sex and stuff, it’s a book about the stars; it beholds God’s grand narrative intimately and deeply and with no loss to its grandeur.

For better or worse, it is thoroughly Roman Catholic. The reason it is “for beginners” is because “Theology of the Body” is actually John Paul II’s opus. This book is Christopher West’s commentary on that work. Some caveats are therefore necessary; it is Catholic, and sometimes that is jarring. The mention of Joseph and Mary’s supposed perpetual virginity, and the censuring of contraception are two cases in point. These assertions, however, are mostly tangential to the essence of West’s argument, which remains worthwhile.

I found myself exploring the content in two aspectspersonally and eschatologically – and two applications – individually and ecclesiastically. They are all intertwined, and it can be a confronting exercise.

For myself, when it comes to the personal aspect, I am quite familiar with my body. Over time, I have learned to listen to it. This is partly because as I’ve got older I’ve had afflictions, such as bladder cancer, which require me to pay attention. But mostly it’s because I am also familiar with anxiety. I know when the “fight or flight” adrenaline response kicks in, and when the knot in my stomach firms its grip. I am acutely aware when physical and existential angst overlap. I have experienced surgery trauma during a delicately intimate emergency procedure. I have also experienced, in my time, ecclesiastical mistreatment. Somehow my body conflates them and remembers both as a form of violation.

When it comes to the eschatological aspect, my engagement is this: I’m old enough to look back at my virile youth when zeal was pumping through my veins. Dreams and longings fizzed and popped. I would lie awake at night, not only moved by the prospect of juvenile romances, but by the sheer abundance of life ahead. I had idealism, expectation, and a simple desire for life.  But it’s one thing to dream, it’s another thing entirely to pursue life “in the flesh.” It’s one thing to fantasize about a romance, and even act it out with someone else, exploring each other physically like adventurers on the brink of a new world. It’s another thing to bring those dreams, and those romances, into steady, stable, committed, reality. Our bodies get spent in the pursuit of life, yet that deep foundational desire is still in there. Belief, when manifest in the physical world, takes the form of desire; we long to desire life, and for life to desire us.

My question of myself, then, is how do I process this experience?  How do I process it theologically? Abstractions and metaphor have their place, but it comes down to something physical: How am loved by God? Me, in this failing, hurting flesh? Me, a fallen man. Am I safe with him? Does he love me in this fat, old, pale, body of mine? Will he be there for me when me and mine need him, literally?

And what about this church that I’m a part of? If we are, together, the Bride of Christ, then I can imagine us looking wistfully in the mirror, studying ourselves with a degree of shame. Perhaps there is torpid obesity, self-afflicted wounds dividing one member from the next, a hacking sickness as yet another abusive leader lodges like phlegm in our lungs. Are we abandoned? Can we ever be fruitful? Who are we that He, our Saviour, should desire us? In our own internal monologue, we speak to each other as if Jesus isn’t even in the room. Shared belief, when manifest in the ecclesiastical world, eventually boils down to desire, and therefore worship.

Do we trust that he loves us? Do we entrust ourselves to him? Forget about strategic plans and all the other church fippery; that’s what it comes down to in the end.

This is why a theology of the body is important. It touches us deeply, intimately, powerfully – both individually and collectively. This part of theology brings implications for all the hot-topic issues; it is why I was reading the book. But those topics are touchstones for a reason. They touch places that run very, very, deep.

No wonder we are all so interested in sex. God put an innate desire in every human being to want to understand the meaning of our creation as male and female and our call to union. Why? To lead us to him. But beware of the counterfeits! Because sex is meant to launch us toward heaven, the enemy attacks right there. When our God-given curiosity about sex is not met with the “great mystery” of the divine plan, we inevitably fall, in one way or another, for the counterplan. In other words, when our desire to understand the body and sexuality is not met with the truth, we inevitably fall for the lies…
(Page 108)

What West has encouraged me to do is to not shy away from words such as “erotic” when  framing concepts of God’s love and mission. For many of us, “erotic” is a difficult word to talk about, and antithetical to anything divine. Eros often connotes uncontrolled passion, lustfulness, or a desire to dominate or manipulate. But we’re talking pure or redeemed eros here. It speaks of yearning and longing and of a form of love that is physically manifest. “Capital ‘E’ Eros – the very fire of God’s love – this is where small ‘e’ eros, the fire within each of us – is meant to lead.” (page 120). The incarnation teaches us that Jesus came in the flesh, and the defining act of “God so loved the world” was “This is my body, broken for you.”  Eros is not something that taints the divine, it is the divine that defines and confines the fire of eros, and is its only satisfying end.

This maddening ache I felt inside was a yearning for the infinite, and God put it there to lead me to him… Christ doesn’t want us to repress our desires, he wants to redeem our desires – to heal them, to redirect them toward an infinite banquet of love and ecstatic bliss called “the marriage feast of the Lamb” (Revelation 19.9). Discovering this set me on fire!
(Page 3)

Therefore “the body is not only biological… [it] is also theological”, West says (page 11), and he is right. Indeed, “Ours is an enfleshed religion, and we must be very careful never to un-flesh it” (page 13).  When we respond to Jesus, we don’t merely give intellectual assent, but a physical response. Not only do we “come to the altar” or wash our bodies with the waters of baptism, our very selves become his. To belong to Christ is to re-orient our physical selves, our yearnings, our longings, our actions, our sufferings. Collectively and individually we respond to his perfect and holy desire for us.

It doesn’t take too long for this to hit close to home. There were times when I had to put this book down because I was manifesting, physically, some of my traumas. I curled up in a ball. I felt, in my gut, the familiar knot of the unlovable, rejected, and ostracised teenager. I felt lonely; shallow-breathed, wild-eyed, scared, hiding my nakedness. I was being reminded that I want God’s love as more than theory; I long to know that the me-in-my-body is longed for, cared for, valued.

As I dared to dwell in this, I found the answer in the physicality of the cross. There have been times – very few times if I’m honest – when, as a man, I have expressed love by serving to the point of physical pain. But Jesus on the cross exemplifies such love. His love for me, for us, is leg-trembling, blood-sweating, shallowed-breathing, pain-moaningly clear. He loves me with his body; it is tenderness, it is affection, it is embrace. His touch on my life may be scary and frightening at times; but in his arms, I am safe, and I can surrender to him and bear much fruit to his glory.

But, to be honest, I struggle with those words. I’ve tried, and failed, to avoid sexual imagery. West’s encouragement is to not avoid it, but to find the holy foundations on which it is grounded. “In Christ eros is ‘supremely ennobled… so purified as to become one with agape‘” (page 23).  There are two foundations that help us:

The first foundation is our own physicality. In the Genesis accounts God creates humanity with physical, sexed, bodies – male and female. Of course, in this current moment of trans and gender militancy, this is a difficult topic, and there is a complexity of “lived experience” to pay heed to. Nevertheless, the essential link between biblical ontology and physical sex is powerful and essential. It can’t be eradicated without fundamentally shifting how we conceive of God, and of ourselves. We are made in the image of God, and that includes our physicality. “God inscribed this vocation to love as he loves right in our bodies by creating us male and female and calling us to become ‘one flesh'” (page 12) and so to “fruitful communion” (page 18).

The second foundation is the so-called “spousal analogy.”  Here is the coherence between marital union and the union of Christ and the Church. It is epitomised in Ephesians 5:25-33. And despite the misrepresentation of its detractors, it was also the substance of the recent CEEC video The Beautiful StoryWest writes, “from beginning to end, in the mysteries of our creation, fall, and redemption, the Bible tells a nuptial, or marital, story” (page 21).

That’s where we can ground our language, and our thoughts.

Take the issue of masculinity. When talking to men about men it is easy to slip into caricatures: the emasculated man-of-the-cloth wearing vestments like a dress, or the macho preacher yelling for Jesus. It can only be approached through a theology of the body.

Us men must learn to be effective members of the church, the “Bride of Christ.” There is an unashamedly feminine form of intimacy in that notion; we rightly pray, as men, something like “bear fruit in us and with us and through us.”  Our sisters, therefore, have much to teach us. The female form of intimacy allows someone to be inside and to leave something there. Men are uncomfortable with that, but need to learn what it means to embrace vulnerability with dignity, honour, and grace-filled empowerment. Without it we struggle to entrust ourselves fully to God, and we certainly cannot nurture and lead his people. For West, drawing on the example of Mary, “every woman’s body is a sign of heaven on earth” (page 25), and that, exactly, is the eschatological nature of the church.

Male bodies have their fragility on the outside, and in our corruption we cover and defend, often by domination. The spousal analogy points to a redemption of this. Christ “gave himself” for his bride, the church. For West, therefore, “the theology of a man’s body can be described as a call to enter the gates of heaven, to surrender himself there, to lay down his life there by pouring himself out utterly” (page 25). No wonder Augustine referred to the “marriage bed of the cross” (page 26). I’ve had enough internal dialogues with myself, and real conversations with other men, to know how dearly we need a cruciform shape to our sexual discipleship.

Clearly, some conceptions of gender, singleness, and marriage are examined by the spousal analogy. It is why these are not second-order issues that are just going to go away. What West does really well is demonstrate how the orthodox or traditional view is not founded on prohibition or repression, but on worship and gospel proclamation. Clearly there is honour in the marriage union of husband and wife; it expresses a divine eros, and it can bear, quite literally, the fruit of new life. But it’s the divine eros that comes first; and none are excluded from it.

…marriage does not express definitively the the deepest meaning of sexuality. It merely provides a concrete expression of that meaning within history… At the end of history, the “historical” expression of sexuality will make way for an entirely new expression of our call to life-giving communion.
(Page 100)

For West celibacy is not a repression of sexuality, but a “fully human – and, yes, fully sexual – vocation” (page 36). All of us – including those of us who are married and sexually active – need to take heed. Our physical yearning is grounded in a more profound yearning that we all hold; to be united in Christ and to see his kingdom birthed in all its fullness. The older I get, the more I realise how that eternal desire is deeper and more profound than that found on the marriage bed. In fact the health of the marriage bed will usually reflect and reveal what is being grasped at the deeper divine levels.

What we yearn for, whether married or single, is a participation in the “spousal meaning” of our body. “Spousal love… is the love of total self-donation” (page 56), and the spousal meaning “is the body’s ‘power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and – through this gift – fulfills the very meaning… of being and existence.'” Marriage looks back to the foundations of the spousal meaning, celibacy looks ahead to its deepest eternal fulfilment. Neither is ethereal. Undergirding both is an eschatologically pure eros desire for eternal communion.

Christ is the ultimate end of our search for intimacy. For those who are single; a sexual partner will not answer your deepest longings. For those who are married; your spouse and your sexual activity will not do it either. I echo West when he offers “great reverence” for the “cry of the heart for a spouse” of the person who is single and doesn’t want to be. Eros is the “cry of our hearts for the infinite… Whether we are single, married, or consecrated celibates, setting our sights on that eternal union is the only hope that can safely see us through the inevitable sorrows and trials of this life” (page 115). We all long for Christ.

We worship whatever we think will satisfy our deepest desires. Eros yearns for the infinite, crying out to be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19). In the divine plan, sexual love is meant to point us to the infinite and opens us up to it. But when we fail to see our sexuality as a sign that leads beyond itself to the mystery of God, eros gets “stuck” on the body itself, and we come to expect small “b” beauty to do what only capital “B” beauty is capable of: fulfilling our deepest longings.
(Page 62)

Here, at these deepest longings, the individual and the ecclesiastical intertwine.  When the church tears itself apart, it reveals what it worships. At the moment much of the church is tearing itself apart over sexuality. Our eros, our worship, is stuck, and we “don’t really believe God wants to satisfy our desires” (page 73). While we desire something other than Christ – the lusts of our consumerism, traditionalism, activism, nationalism, and even some hedonism – we are simply not a real embodiment of the gospel, not really a church.

But in all things – both personal and ecclesiastical – there is hope. There is the blood of Christ poured out for us on the cross. There is new wine to receive – quite literally in Communion. There is the Spirit of God, holding us, filling us, giving voice to groans, and making all whole, new, and fruitful. God desires us. How can that not awaken and delight our heart?

If Christians themselves don’t believe in the power of redemption to transform eros, what do we have to offer a sexually indulgent world other than rules and repression? If the contest is between the starvation diet and the fast food, the fast food wins hands down. But if redemption can truly redirect our desires toward a divine banquet that infinitely satisfies our hunger, the banquet wins hands down.
(Page 86)

I came to this book expecting some treatise that may inform a church controversy. I have left with some of my cynicism eroded. I have left having brushed against a beautiful thought such that “I was filled with a painful longing, a kind of nostalgia that grabbed me in the chest and became a prayer.” I have found myself praying: “I have been afraid that living from that ‘fire’ inside me would only cause me pain or lead me astray. Awaken a holy and noble eros in me, Lord. Give me the courage to feel it and help me to experience it as my desire for your Fire” (page 109).

Amen.

How Clergy Thrive is a short report in the Church of England that was released in October 2020. It provides insights from the Living Ministry research programme, a longitudinal study into clergy wellbeing that has been following four cohorts of clergy and their families. It is substantial research and author, Liz Graveling, presents it well. It pushes in the right direction but, unsurprisingly, falls short of a fulsome exhortation for the cultural and structural changes that are really needed.

I have attended enough “resilience” sessions at clergy conferences to approach a report on this topic with a healthy cynicism. This report avoids many of the normal pitfalls.

For instance, clergy wellbeing is often reduced to a matter of individualised introspection and the promotion of coping mechanisms. Refreshingly, this report recognises that “wellbeing” is a “shared responsibility” (page 7). It notes that the “the pressure to be well”, itself, “can sometimes feel like a burden”. Indeed, “clergy continuously negotiate their wellbeing with institutions, social forces and other people: family members, friends, colleagues, parishioners, senior clergy and diocesan officers, as well as government agencies and market forces.” We clergy live in a complex web of ill-defined social contracts. We are often the least defended from the inevitable toxicities. A recognition of this system is a good foundation.

Similarly, the multifaceted approach to “vocational clarity” (page 9) deals well with actual reality. There is always a gap between the “calling” of ministry and the “job” of ministry, between the way in which the Holy Spirit gifts someone to the body of Christ, and their institutional identity. In my experience, the wellbeing of a clergyperson is essentially shaped by one’s emotional response to that gap. Wellbeing is encouraged by stimulating and supporting a clergyperson to reach an honest, holistic, and healthy equilibrium. It is undermined by arbitrary training hoops and merely bureaucratic forms of institutional support. The short discussion on where annual Ministry Development Reviews are either helpful or not (page 9) or even damaging (page 10) indicates that this dynamic has been recognised. The many “questions for discussion and reflection” are also helpful.

It’s impossible, of course, to read something like this without evaluating my own wellbeing and the health of the institution to which I belong. I have my own experiences, of course, including some significant times of being unwell. Here, however, my attention has been turned to the cultural and structural problems that are revealed.

Take the surveyed statement “I feel that I am fulfilling my sense of vocation” (page 11). It is noted that “79% agreed they were fulfilling their sense of vocation.” This sounds reasonable. However, I’m not sure if that positive summary is quite what the data actually suggests. Only 47%, less than half, of the respondents can fulsomely agree with vocational fulfillment. The other 32% in that 79% can only “somewhat agree”, and a full 20% is neutral or negative.

In many professions this picture might be excellent. Retention rates for teaching, for instance, indicate a 30% loss after five years.1  We must, however, make a distinction between an ordained vocation and most other professions. In ordained life, one’s profession is not just one facet of life, it is holistic (page 7); it captures many, if not all, of life’s parts. Integration of those parts is key to being healthy. How can it be, then, that 53% of our clergy are not able to fully find themselves within the life of the church? From my perspective, this speaks of a consumeristic culture in which clergy are service-providing functionaries rather than charism-bearing persons. Perhaps it simply speaks to an unhealthy culture in which it is tolerable for square pegs to be placed in round holes despite the inevitable trauma. Whatever the case, this isn’t about the church institutions doing wrong things, it’s about innate ways of being wrong; we need to change.

We see glimpses of this same sense throughout. Consider the relative benefits of the activities that are meant to support clergy (page 14). The more positive responses correlate to personal activities or activities that are outside the institution: retreats, spiritual direction, mentoring, networks, and academic study. The institutional supports such as MDRs, Diocesan Day Courses, Facilitated Small Groups and so on, are of relatively less benefit. In fact IME Phase 2, the official curacy training program, scores worst of all!  I cannot speak to IME – my curacy was in Australia – but the rest of the picture certainly matches my own experience.

This is observation, not disparagement. I generally sympathise with those in Diocesan-level middle management. They have tools and opportunities that look fit for purpose, but they so often appear to run aground on deeper issues they cannot solve. Dissatisfaction then abounds. A related observation is this: It appears to me that a common factor amongst the poorer scoring forms of support is that they are often compulsory. This invariably amplifies dissatisfaction. Appropriate accountability and commitment aside, compulsion usually reveals an institution propping itself up through confecting its own needfulness.

Again, when  “sources of support” are considered (page 31), the ones most positively regarded are non-institutional: family, friends, colleagues, and congregation. Senior Diocesan Staff, Theological College, and Training Incumbent score low. This is understandable and perhaps it is unfair to make this comparison; no one is expecting the Bishop to be a greater source of support than one’s spouse. However, the question wasn’t about support in general, but about “flourishing in ministry“, and the picture remains stark. Note, also, that the most negative response that could be offered was a neutral “not beneficial.” If a negative “unhelpful” were counted, the picture might be even starker.

My point is that cultural problems are being revealed. If only 63% of respondents could agree, at least somewhat, that “the bishop values my ministry” (page 49) then this is not so much a problem in our bishops, and certainly not the clergy, but in the institution in which we all embody our office.

Remuneration and finances are also revealing. 45% of the respondents are “living comfortably”, but 81% of the respondents had “additional income” (pages 39-40) which, I suspect, relates mostly to the income of a spouse. To some degree, this is all well and good; a dual income usually means a better quality of life. Nevertheless, the sheer disparity in financial wellbeing between clergy couples with one or two incomes cannot be ignored.  The provision of parsonage housing is a factor; in other occupations accommodation costs generally rise and fall along with household income and dampens the disparity.  More importantly, however, is how this reflects the individualisation of vocation, and the shocking degree to which clergy spouses are simply invisible, for better or for worse, within the Church of England. It is also my experience, both personally and anecdotally, that the wellbeing of couples who are both clergy is not well assisted in our current culture. This is especially so for those called to “side by side” ministry, who share a ministry context and usually only one stipend. It’s well past time to allow for couples to be licensed and commissioned as couples, like many mission agencies do. We need the means to share remuneration packages and tax liability, and, at the very least, the provision of National Insurance and pension contributions for the non-stipended spouse. Our current culture does not allow for this.

Finally, this study would do well to extend its work to take into account the effects of incumbency on wellbeing. I wonder what proportion of the respondents, given their relative “youth” in career-length terms, have reached incumbent status? Incumbency comes with a certain level of stability, power, and protection. Attached to incumbency are checks and balances on institutional power. Incumbents are more clearly party to the social contract between clergyperson and institution. Associates, SSMs, permanent deacons, and the increasing numbers of crucial lay ministers are not as well protected. They do “find themselves overlooked or under-esteemed” (page 35). The increasing prevalence of non-tenured and part-time positions in the Church of England is a structural concern that does effect clergy wellbeing. We need more work here.

How Clergy Thrive has painted a useful picture. There is scope for even more insight. The benefit of longitudinal research is that the story of wellbeing can be told over time. The testimonials in this report reflect this and are very helpful. It is unfortunate, however, that most of the data is presented as a snapshot census-like aggregation across the cohorts. An accurate picture of how wellbeing ebbs and flows as a career progresses would help us all. If we knew, for instance, at what point in their career a clergyperson is most likely to not be thriving, we could respond. If clergy wellbeing suddenly drops, or if it slowly diminishes over time, that would teach us something also.

Like the vast majority of reports, this one struggles to answer the question of “What do we do about it?” How do we help clergy thrive? In the end, it appeals to an acrostic: THRIVE (pages 56-57). It’s not bad. It’s healthy advice that I’ve given to myself and to others from time to time: Tune into healthy rhythms; Handle expectations; Recognise vulnerability; Identify safe spaces; Value and affirm; Establish healthy boundaries.

These principles are applied, to a small degree, to how the existing system might do a few things differently. In the main, however, they describe what clergy have managed to do for themselves. It’s a story of technical changes for the institution, but adaptive change for the clergy. We need the reverse of that.

The life of a clergyperson exists in an impossibly complex interweave of pastoral, strategic, and logistical expectations. Technical changes in an institution often only add more expectation and more complexity. We have a structural problem. We have forces vectoring through things that are too old, too big, or too idolised to be modified. Instead, they are dissipated through the clergyperson, and other officeholders, but not the system itself. Personally, I’ve learned to find my place and peace with much of the machinery, and to look for the best in the persons who hold office. I have done this, in resonance with many of the testimonials in this report, by trusting real people when I can, and by not giving myself, or those I love, to the church system itself.

It’s not enough for the ecclesiastical machine to do things better. It must become different. Take heed of the testimonial on page 25 – “I wouldn’t really trust my diocese to make them aware that I have a mental health issue.” Imagine, instead, that the diocese was for that person a fount, a fallback, a refuge, or a hope! In short, imagine if the church (ecclesiastical) really aligned with being a church (theological). That’s the redemption we need. I wonder if the “big conversation” alluded to on page 6 will help.

Like most intractable problems, the hard thing is not about noting the problem. It’s not rocket science; we “just” need real Spirit-filled personal nourishment and discipleship. It’s the getting from here to there that is difficult. Difficult, but not dire. There are times when the right people are in the right place and it just works. For myself, I hold to a glimpse of how things might come to be:

What do clergy need to thrive? They don’t need an “MDR”, they need to be overseen: a regular conversation with a little-e episcopal someone who can cover them, is for them, and who has their back.

What do clergy need to thrive? They don’t need strategic plans and communication strategies, they need to be treated as the little-p presbyters they are: brought into the loop, entrusted with substantial work without being second guessed, and given space to be themselves without having to watch their back.

What do clergy need to thrive? They don’t need a “remuneration package”, they need to be provided for with decent housing that’s fit for their purpose, enough money to feed their family and prepare for the future, and an assurance that spouse and children will also be backed and supported without needing to beg or “apply.”

Footnotes
1 – National Foundation For Educational Research, 2018

What a fascinating book. This is about more than management techniques, it’s a distinct vision of how people might organise, relate, and flourish.

Reinventing Organizations is doing the popular rounds. I’m going to approach it, learn from it, and critique it from the point of view of church leadership. The author is Frederic Laloux, about whom I know little. It is wonderfully, helpfully (although somewhat, um, caucasianally) illustrated by Etienne Appert. This is not some tome. It’s like a printed powerpoint presentation, and reading it feels like attending a seminar.

Laloux’ framework builds upon an evolutionary understanding of human organisation. He imagines human society having grown through “sudden leaps” (page 18) from “red (impulsive)” communities characterised by gang-like dominance (page 21), through “amber (conformist)” army-like shaping of the world (page 22), through “orange (achievement)” machine-like enterprises (page 26), and “green (pluralistic)” family-like cultures. He imagines, and this is the book’s raison d’être, a “teal (evolutionary) worldview” (page 38) which is shaped by “individual and collective unfolding… taming the ego… inner rightness as compass… yearning for wholeness” (pages 38-39). This is what he examines, explores, and seeks to apply in the real world.

There’s a lot that is good in his vision, and we’ll get to that, but there are two fundamental disagreements with which I must clear the air first.

Firstly, I disagree with the worldview in which he explores these worldviews (his meta-worldview?). It is typical human progressivism: We were once ancient and primitive, and we have slowly grown more enlightened over the years, passing through the different colours of the sociological rainbow until we find ourselves at the brink of the next leap forward. This is not peripheral to his outlook; his vision has a religious fervour. His language is almost eschatological: “This might sound surprising, but I think there is reason to be deeply hopeful… the pain we feel is the pain of something old that is dying… while something new is waiting to be born”! (pages 16-17).

Such language might be novel in the business world, but it’s entirely familiar to the world of faith and spirituality. This world, however, offers the necessary pushback: A linearly progressive story in which we go step by step into either utopia or the apocalypse is rarely a helpful picture. The best eschatology is an insight into the here and now. The different colours and types that Laloux puts forward are useful depictions, but they are less helpful when locked into some sequence of progression. It is more real to think of them as different facets of what human life is like now, and what it has always been. If only he would talk about organisations operating in certain ways rather than at certain evolutionary stages, his work would be much more accessible.

The fact is, we have always had the dominant reds, and the conformist ambers, and the organised oranges, and the organic-but-not-quite greens, and yes, the wholeness-flowing teals. For sure, they have not always been in balance, but they all have their place, and they all have their ongoing, present value. e.g. red organisations can be excellent in a crisis, or where order needs to be brought in the midst of chaos. These worldviews have always been there. To ignore that is to embrace a sort of generational bigotry which refuses to learn from our ancestors who were somehow unable to “hold more complex perspectives” (page 33) than our much more virtuous generation.

Secondly, and relatedly, his teal worldview is nothing new. It might be that it isn’t particularly apparent in the contemporary Western world, and so it is a good corrective. But he isn’t broaching untapped waters here. At best, he is re-discovering something long forgotten.

Perhaps he can’t see it because of a typically prejudicial view of religion that sees the church as being primarily about “rules and traditions” (page 33) and conformity to hierarchy (“oppression” even, page 24).  It’s clear he simply doesn’t get religion, especially of the organised Western sort, which isn’t stuck in amber-conformity but orange-machine!  I audibly laughed when he assumed that “priests aren’t assigned KPIs, as far as I know” (page 27). He really doesn’t know!

It’s a shame. This prejudice makes this an awkward book to use in a Christian context.  Moreover, it overlooks the deep riches there are in faith traditions, including Christian spirituality, that actually supports his teal worldview.

For instance, the language and concept of vocation or calling is ever-present in his teal world. Similarly, the sense of belonging and organic flourishing resonates with Biblical imagery of being members of a body, in which we not only exercise our gifts, but we are a gift of grace to the larger whole. Organic organisations have been part of missiological thinking for some time now; the lifeshapes framework of a couple of decades ago may not always be practiced as it is preached, but it looks to biology in the heptagon and speaks of “low control, high accountability.” Laloux speaks of being a “sensor”, the charismatic and contemplative world speaks of discernment and intuitive insight. He speaks of the teal “yearning for wholeness” (page 39) and I reflect on the language of “groaning” for fulfilment in not only Paul (Romans 8), but the laments of the Old Testament. He speaks of the need for “reflective spaces” and I look to the vast wealth of liturgical rhythms and spiritual disciplines. None of these are on his radar, and that’s a shame.

So Laloux’ wisdom, like most living wisdom, has an unacknowledged companionship and heritage. But in the end that’s not necessarily a problem; there’s still good here.

There’s a refreshing honesty in his analysis. I found his exploration of the interplay between the green-pluralist and orange-machine to be very applicable to church leadership. These two worldviews are the predominant ones in the West, and they often collide. Many churches, and most church hierarchies, are unashamedly orange, and they should be ever mindful of orange’s shadow side (page 29). Many who have fallen out of the religious industry now lean towards green. Here we are “aware of Orange’s shadows: the materialistic obsession, the social inequality, the loss of community.” Greens “strive to belong, to foster close and harmonious bonds with everyone… they insist that all people are fundamentally of equal worth, that every voice be heard.” Orangegreen typifies, sociologically speaking, the evangelicalliberal divide.

For many, being green seems to be the answer. The reality, however, reflects Laloux’ insight into the “contradictions” of green-pluralist organisations (page 32). It’s certainly something I’ve observed:

In many smaller organisations, in particular in nonprofits or social ventures [churches?], the emphasis lies with consensus seeking. More often than not it leads to organizational paralysis. To get things moving again, unsavory power games break out in the shadows. (Page 32)

I’ve seen such paralysis. I’ve been knocked about by these shadowy power games. The games are often in the shadows of church dynamics; power is often pursued with a degree of self-delusion that denies that power and ego is present at all. It’s a complex dynamic to navigate and Laloux does us all a service by acknowledging it.

There is much that is virtuous about the teal (“evolutionary”) worldview. The interplay of teal’s central characteristic of “self-management”, “wholeness”, and “purpose” (page 55) is an exciting and dynamic way of exploring organisations such as churches. It leads to some aspirations: e.g. to embody a culture in which “we are called to discover and journey towards our true self, to unfold our unique potential, to unlock our birthright gifts” (page 38). I only need to look at my teacher, nursing, and clergy friends, and others who have pursued a vocational path, to see such a yearning.

I resonated with his understanding that the “one critical variable” to the success of organic teal systems is “psychological ownership people feel for their organization” (page 140). It applies to the ecclesiastical world. In the end, a church’s health does not usually come down to capacity, resources, or opportunity; it comes down to motivation. What do we care about? Have we actually bought into the love of God and the Great Commission of Jesus? What’s the difference between our espoused theology, and our actual lived-out beliefs?

I loved his image of the “bowl of spaghetti” (page 139), as a metaphor for the task of unravelling a complex system with simple, sensorial movements. In the church world we speak of “the long walk of obedience” with steps of both discernment and faith. It is similar; each step is gentle tug on a strand of spaghetti, to see what is next on the path.

Above all, I was encouraged to find that as questions arose in my mind, they would almost always be answered.

For instance, he speaks of leaderless self-managed teams, with little if any hierarchy. I could admire the picture, but couldn’t conceive of it working unless there was firstly a dynamic leader who could create the culture and hold the space in which the organic could emerge. His main example of the nursing company  Buurtzorg and its leader, Jos de Blok, reinforced what appeared to be a contradiction. How can self-management rely on a dynamic leader?

Laloux recognises the dilemma, and engages with it. He doesn’t eschew the concept of power, as if it doesn’t exist – “the goal is not to give everyone the exact same power… it is to make everyone powerful” (page 123). He recognises the necessity of visionary, culture-setting leaders, such as Jos de Blok. Sometimes “a committed and powerful CEO is needed” (page 144) to be a “public face” and a chief sensor (page 148).

It has similarities with the dynamic of being a vicar!  In church traditions we speak of the “apostolic” gifting, which is interestingly connected to, and often at odds with, the “episcopal” function; perhaps that is an orange (episcopal)  teal (apostolic) creative tension!  The apostolic covers, and articulates the common purpose around which others are organically coalescing. It is a joy when a church operates in this mode, and doesn’t need micro-managing;  “the organization’s purpose provides enough alignment.” (page 125). It’s why we harp on about  purpose, mission, and gospel… or at least we should.

This leadership dynamic is especially applicable within the pioneering and church planting worlds. In some circles we speak of pioneer “dissenting pathfinders” who push on into the unknown with gospel purpose; and we have also learned of the need for an “authority dissenter” who covers them and “holds the space” (crf. page 149) in which they can thrive.

Nevertheless, the self-contradictions of the teal vision cannot be fully resolved. For instance, teal is organic and flourishing with self-management, yet in the pragmatics “control is useful and necessary” (page 145). Laloux is honest about most of these tensions, but doesn’t fully resolve them.

I am left, therefore with some unease, and it comes back to the philosophical foundations. Laloux’ vision is effectively a progressive utopianism, and that is rarely, if ever, grounded in the real world.

For instance, it is a virtue for “inner rightness” to be our compass (Page 39); this is the stuff of vocation! But if Laloux had looked into centuries’ worth of engagement on human issues, including the monastic traditions, he would have learned how vocation falls when it becomes self-fulfillment alone. Jesus demonstrates this with his spirit and attitude of kenosis, or self-giving/self-emptying (see Philippians 2:1-11). Ironically, without that kenotic aspect, Laloux’ “inner rightness” is inherently egocentric, tuned in orbit to an individual reality, and not to a grounded, shared, common sense of what is right and wrong. His epistemology is on show here, and it’s basic individualism.

Similarly, consider how “taming the ego” is crucial to Laloux’ vision. It’s an excellent aspiration, to realise “how our ego’s fears, ambitions, and desires have been secretly running our lives” (page 38). Again, if he had looked to the richness of how the traditions have dealt with ego over the years, he may not have missed the balancing perspective. They speak of sin, corruption, depravity, and shame, and the need for communities to both allow for it and protect from it. The teal vision is appealing, but it is only effective, and safe, when there is sinlessness. This is never the case; Laloux’ eschatology is overly-realised!

Laloux speaks often of trust. Trust is valuable. Trust is precious. And it is these things because it is rare commodity within the tensions of the real world. It is right for trust to be withdrawn, because sin abides. Sometimes, walls of protection are what is needed for life to flourish. A worldview that relies so heavily on trust runs the danger of coercing it, and therefore, of doing injury. I did a straw-poll of some friends about their emotional reaction to the phrase “This is a safe space”: the offered responses indicated elevated fear and insecurity. The assertion of “safe space” into a system coerces trust; “If you don’t trust us, you can’t belong.” I can’t shake my sense that the teal vision rests on this subtle manipulation.

This mishandling of the human condition obscures the danger in the teal worldview. For sure, I can see teal dynamics bringing life (there is wisdom in this book!) But I can also see teal structures being a place where the bullies can win, the power-games can be played, dissenting voices can be silenced, and the popular majority can rule over the lost and forgotten. Perhaps, at their best, these structures can be “natural hierarchies” (page 77), but nature can be harsh!  We can imagine, with Laloux, the joy of people “showing up in loving and caring ways?” (page 93), but what happens when they don’t?

Similarly, I get that its a virtue to bring your “whole self” to work (page 82), but is it really?  My whole self has corruptions as well as goodness. Is that allowed? My whole self has shames and injuries. Should I take those out from “behind my professional mask”, or from behind whatever persona might actually make work a safe place for me and others? There is a subtle demand for exposure in the teal framework, and this is not entirely healthy.

What I do know, from observation and experience, is that the more you lead with the whole of yourself on display, the more you have to count the cost of the inevitable injuries. Every room has it’s shibboleths. Teal isn’t a worldview in which masks can be dropped; it’s a different mode in which different masks must be learned, enforced by tingsha bells.

Vulnerability is inspiring and powerful (let’s hear it for Brene Brown). By definition, however, it is a choice to be self-givingly “unsafe”.  There is goodness in it; Jesus himself shows that it is a path through pain to life. We may aspire to this form of open resilience in ourselves, hope for it in our leaders, and nurture others towards it as well. But vulnerabilty cannot be demanded without causing injury. We do not cast our pearls before swine; there’s a reason we offer our deepest parts to the Lord alone, or in close, intimate relationships.

Teal has it’s virtues and I have learned much from this book. But just like all the other colours, I do not think it is entirely safe.  “Practices are lifeless without the underlying worldview”, Laloux rightly records towards the end (page 131). And here’s the crux of it. There is some wisdom in this book. Some good things to ponder, insights that can offer a corrective. But in the end, I cannot base my life, my leadership, my wholeness, my organisation upon his utopianism. As a church, we have our founding worldview, and we begin with Jesus.

It is very easy to raise questions about the state of the church. It’s harder to provide the answers. This is a decent book, that does the easy bit, but not the hard bit.

You don’t have to spend too much time in the ecclesiastical world before encountering a sort of divine discontent.

The ideal of the church is so profound, when you dig into it, that St. Paul could only fathom it by calling it a mystery. God intervenes in this world through his people, through his children, drawn together across time and place, by the Holy Spirit, and counted as united with Jesus himself. All that has come through Jesus to this world – salvation, forgiveness, healing, hope, truth, love, joy, sanctification, peace… – is instantiated, implemented, manifested through his people. We are a “peculiar people” reflecting in our very being together, the reality of Christ’s resurrection and victory, and the essence of life eternal.

To be fair, this ideal is far from a pipe-dream. I have a testimony, just like millions of others, of tasting some of this in the life of God’s people. I have encountered Jesus in sacrament, song, the proclaimed word of God, and the outpoured care and provision of spiritual brothers and sisters. I have known what is like for Church to be lively, dynamic, provocative, restorative, and free!

Like many, of course, I have also encountered the church as a mere shadow of this; stultified, institutionalised, divided, toxic, and sometimes even downright ugly. I was thinking about these things years ago.

How do we respond to this gap between the ideal and the real? How do we cope with it? How do we seek to change it? This is the age-old question that Steve Aisthorpe takes us to with Rewilding the Church.

Aisthorpe draws on a defining metaphor. He looks to the ecological movement of rewilding. This philosophy seeks to restore the vibrancy of ecosystems not through ongoing strategic management of fauna and flora, but by allowing the space for nature to run its course; it entrusts the land to the original, wild, uncontrollable, organic mechanisms that existed before domestication.

Advocates of rewilding argue that much of what is done in the name of conservation is little more than the preservation of man-made landscapes through human intervention and and management. It’s time, they assert, to step back and allow the processes within nature to reshape the environment. Pages 1-2

The application to Church life is clear. The metaphor imagines a domesticated church, beset by an “appetite to plan, manage, contain, and control” (page 2), and in need of rewilding in order to realise that elusive ideal. It’s quite compelling.

At first and second glance, it aligns with many of my own thoughts about the plight of the church: We have become fear-and-performance-driven; much of our ecclesiastical structure is an attempt to provide a controlled, and thus usually dead-on-arrival, outcome. There is stability, but little faith, in following a map. A truly Kingdom Church will be blown by the Spirit, and will learn to chart new waters; it will know why it’s going on the adventure it is called to, but will not always be able to fully articulate what that will look like or where it will end up. Aisthorpe’s metaphor articulates something similar: “We cannot convey a vision or an outcome… we must convince people of the integrity of the process” (page 12).

Similarly, I have been known to say that my church growth model distills down to “those who seek to save their live will lose it.” That is, it is grounded on surrender. Aisthorpe’s metaphor resonates:

I am… suggesting that in our well-meaning efforts to create, facilitate, organise, manage and control, we are sometimes in danger of surrendering authenticity for mere reality… By creating and maintaining congregational models that require certain functions and roles, we forego community that emerges from the gift of its people, shaped by the context of their lives and the realities of the wider community. The distinction I am making may seem obtuse or subtle, but it is certainly important. It is the difference between a community with Jesus at its heart and a club for followers of Jesus. In one we are firmly in control; the other is the result of surrendering the driving seat. (Page 27).

His chapter on “culling the invasive species” is excellent in this regard. Through this part of the metaphor he deals with the invasive idolatry of busyness that feeds much of the toxicity of modern church culture. “For the kingdom that Jesus proclaimed and demonstrated to flourish and expand, ” he says, “we don’t need to do more and we don’t need to be cleverer; it is neither ingenious tactics nor nifty strategy that is required… we need to respond by culling what is unhelpful, live lives of simple and courageous obedience, and trust God that what emerges will reflect the splendour of his kingdom” (page 158). He channels Eugene Peterson’s Contemplative Pastor in this section, and conveys its richness.

Most fundamentally, (and here he draws significantly on Hirsch and Frost and their ReJesus), he centres it on Jesus, the “Wild Messiah”, about whom it is all about. I often perceive the church as beyond renewal, revival, or even reformation, and in need of resurrection. Aisthorpe speaks, with Hirsch and Frost, of a “refounding.” “Rewilding the Church is not a call to spend more hours on our knees,” he exhorts, “although for some it might mean that… it is a refocusing of our attention on Jesus, a reinstating of him at the heart of everything” (Page 57). When we lose Jesus, our “self-identity has been eroded” (page 39) and we need to answer that deepest question of “who do we think we are?”

Rewilding the Church begins here: knowing ourselves to be beloved, putting our roots down deep into Christ, allowing our self-identity to be reshaped in the light of Scriptures, discerning his purposes and stepping out into the adventure of faith. (Page 38)

I have resonance, agreement even, in my engagement with this rewilding metaphor. His perception of the ills of church – that gap between the ideal and the reality – seems to align with my own. He even touches on the problems of missional language (page 46) that I could have used in a recent article on being post-missional! We have the same vista before us. But it begs the question: What now? What do we with this? What next in the pursuit of God’s kingdom, to the bridging of the gap between what is and what can be?

At this point the metaphor begins to ring a little hollow, and his suggestions take on that tinge of theory slightly disconnected from the dirt-under-the-fingernails practice of pastoral ministry.

His weakest chapter, on “tuning in and joining in”, is the clearest illustration of this. It has much that is virtuous; essentially he calls us to discernment and following the Spirit, to a “conscious setting aside of preconceptions and a determination to discern what God is doing and our role in that” (page 74). This is wisdom, and, in the face of a tendency for churches to grab their nearest Alpha course and launch forth into another round of having always done it that way, it is prophetic and useful. But taken too far, as I suspect it might be, it can become an unworkable, deleterious, deconstruction.

Similarly, I admire the work he has conducted in researching the spirituality of the “dones.” I’ve even ordered his The Invisible Church. He recognises that legalism and dogmatism are part of the problem, and he rightly exhorts towards “creating environments where asking questions and exploring doubts are positively encouraged” (page 130). Yet he fails to recognise that there are limits to such an approach, which if transgressed, inhibits and hinders and unbalances the kingdom’s ecosystem.

Let me unpack this: What I think Aisthorpe has done is taken a small step off the edge into a prevalent postmodern fallacy that relies on two impossibilities.

The first fallacy is this: that it is possible to approach the church as a blank slate with no preconceptions. For sure, the kingdom of God rarely comes by means of a bulldozer, a brash leader with hardened ideas of how things should be. It is far worse, however, when it is attempted with a pretense at blank neutrality. There is a form of unhealthy (even arrogant) piety that purports to purely “leave space” for the “Holy Spirit” or the “natural processes” of wild mission. Everyone has an agenda, a preconception of how things should be. It is healthy to admit it, and much better to bring that agenda forward carefully, gently, and with humility.

This flaw is in Aisthorpe’s metaphor. Every example he brings of ecological flourishing embodies a preconception; it presupposes what that flourishing looks like. There is a hidden pre-judgment of what should or should not be the end result of the “rewilding”, of what would be considered a “successful” attempt at rewilding, or what might be considered to be a failure. Every ecologist has a hope, a dream, a passion for what a renewed ecosystem might look like. Everyone has an agenda on their own terms.

But of course, the point of the metaphor is to consider the church: Consider a pioneering venture, a church plant or a fresh expression, launching out like an expedition into the uncharted waters of organic local ministry. The “rewilding” metaphor may help us remember that the team can’t control everything; they don’t know what lies around the corner, who will be their “people of peace”, and what aspects of their work will resonate and take hold. Flexibility, adaptability, and humility will be required. But so will a sense of vision, purpose; and understanding of why the venture is being started, and why it is worth the cost. These are preconceptions that must be owned, explored, amended, and released, not wished away by some pretence!

The second fallacy is related, and it’s this: that it is possible to approach the mission of God as a neutral observer. The rewilding metaphor purports to be a “hands off” approach, and its strength is in its departure from the artificial cultivation of “natural” environments. But it is not really hands-off, is it? Human agency is involved in the reintroduction of native species, the elimination of invasive species, and in “creating the environment” in which a new (and usually “better” in some preconceived sense) balance is achieved. Human agency is present, and can’t be pretended away.

Consider, again, his otherwise very helpful chapter about “noticing who’s missing”. He picks up on his research into “the dones” who have left church behind in their Christian discipleship, and, as mentioned above, exhorts us towards creating an environment which allows for “asking questions and exploring doubts” (page 129). It’s a great push back at dogmatism. But notice the tension: At the same time as he wants to allow for questions and doubts, Aisthorpe also has a kerygma, a truth to assert: We must “refocus our attention on Jesus and the vision he imparted, the kingdom, his certain intention to redeem all of creation and to restore his seamless reign” (page 134).

What’s it going to be? Questions and doubts? Or truth-claims about Jesus? For sure, it’s both, but the rewilding metaphor doesn’t hold that tension. Just as an ecologist cannot pretend that they are not present in their environment; Aisthorpe cannot pretend that the epistemological certainty of the gospel of Jesus – the Way, the Truth, and the Life – can be removed from a church environment of questioning and doubting. To be fair, I don’t think he does, himself, pretend; but his metaphor gives succour to those that do, and they are invariably damaging to the church.

It is good for all mission-minded congregations to listen hard, question well, explore and wrestle with doubts and assumptions. But no-one does this in an absolute sense; no-one cuts themselves off from their epistemological foundations. Those who claim to be moved solely by “listening” are usually unhealthy pursuers of their own certainty; and being self-deceived they tend to hurt and exclude and roll over others blindly. Rather, the strength of the gospel is that it has a certainty in an objective life-giving someone other-than-us, Jesus. In the certainty of him is a truly safe place in which to wrestle with our questions and doubts.

So what’s underneath all this? To be fair, I’m probably amplifying the problem here. Aisthorpe’s book is genuine and temperate, and he only takes a small step into these murky waters. Maybe he has simply run into the problem of all metaphors, that they can be extended too far. I’d love to have a longer conversation with him. His insights intrigue me.

What I’m detecting however, and responding negatively to, is a crack left open for a more insidious miscomprehension of the place of human agency in the church, in mission, and in the world at large. It’s the flip-side of toxic traditionalism (crf. page 174) and just as bad. It is prevalent in the more Greenbelt-y ends of the Christian economy, which I’m sure is Aisthorpe’s area of influence.

In this view of humanity, we are not merely corrupted and corrupting (as in the classical views of sin, guilt, and shame), we are innately corruption itself. We don’t have a problem, we are the problem. By definition, humanity unwilds the environment; we are the problem, in ourselves.

The classical view of the human condition at least has a “solution”:  At the worst (and most worldviews have it) it is answered in some form of judgement and retribution. In the gospel, gloriously, it is answered with grace, forgiveness, regeneration, renewal.

This other view has no grace. Can we call it some form of “nihilistic humanism? It’s answer is not the redemption of human agency it is the elimination of it. It’s “gospel” is the diminishment, even the eradication, of humanity itself. If we remove ourselves, the world will be pristine.

We detect this view in our post-postmodern “wokeist” world and as we smart against “cancel culture” and other intersectional diktats. There is no grace. There is no redemption. There is just the elimination of voice, and even of personhood. Where corruption is perceived, in, for example, the recent furore regarding J. K. Rowling’s opinion on the essence of womanhood, it can only be solved by eliminating that voice: She should shut up, she should be nothing, her privileged existence is almost an affront. The best we can do is to rid this world of our corruption; to rid this world of ourselves.

Aisthorpe’s metaphor allows space for this nihilistic humanism. The rewilding metaphor buys into it: The best form of human agency in ecology is not to act. The best form of leadership is to not lead. The best form of being church is not to be, but to dissolve into the mystery of doubt and of questions without answer. Run to the end of this road and we deny the value of the very humanity that Christ himself inhabited; we deny Christ.

The gospel is not a flip to the other extreme in which human agency is absolutised. It is possible to conceive of a dominion ecology in which the telos of the environment is subservience to human passion. We can easily imagine, in a Trumpist world, the essence of church being nothing but the articulation of dogmatic norms defining human worth around legalistic performance. This also denies Christ.

Rather we must come to the middle: The gospel speaks of sanctified, renewed, Spirit-led, life-bringing human agency. God is an interventionist God, not a leave-it-alone-to-its-own-devices deity. God intervenes through humanity. This is ultimately, of course, in Jesus, who fulfils the heart and soul of human vocation; from the creation covenant of Adam, through Mosaic holiness, and Davidic leadership as a shepherd after “God’s own heart.” The telos of the gospel is not grasped in the disappearance of humanity-as-corruption, but in the emergence of humanity-redeemed.

All creation is groaning, Paul says in Romans, as if in the pains of childbirth. For what? To lose the shackles of it’s human parasites? No! “The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed.” (Romans 8:19). The children of God will not rape or pillage or ecologically destroy, but neither will they abandon, remove themselves, or deny their image of God by ceasing to be. They will act with careful, loving, Jesus-shaped agency; tending, nurturing, intervening, growing, proclaiming life and truth.

As for creation, so for the church. Both church and creation are eschatologically linked. I long for a true rewilding of both. In the truest sense, we are also creatures, and we also belong there: we hear our Saviour and the call to his wild.

I see glimpses of this call in Aisthorpe. But in the end, his rewilding is more of a taming of God’s people towards a trajectory that’s not entirely benign. There is wisdom and good to glean from this book, but the church’s deepest longings are not answered here.

Sometimes I read an excellent book that I find deeply frustrating. This is one of those times.

Ken Costa’s Know Your Why is well written, right-hearted, and helpful. This is a book about vocation. If you are interested in what it means to live according to the calling of Christ, especially if that calling is within the marketplace of the “secular” world, this book would likely bless you. Costa is not only successful in the world of finance and investment, he is one of the key leaders behind Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB) and the Alpha movement. Know Your Why could easily be  the “Beta” course – a follow-on curriculum about introductory discipleship for real people in the real world. What’s not to like?

Yet I find myself set on edge. In this review, therefore, I am taking a lead from my own reaction. I need to be clear about that. I’m not trying to whinge or tear down. I’m exploring my response and attempting to articulate my disquiet. I am checking myself for a critical spirit!

I must admit a bias. I didn’t know Costa’s background when I ordered the book, and when I made the HTB connection I found myself wearily sighing. Why? Maybe the pages of endorsements from the pantheon of Christian celebrities provoked my cynicism. Nevertheless, why so critical, O my soul? On the face of it, HTB and Alpha should be “my team” to cheer for. They are the face of charismatic Anglicanism, and it’s not the skin-deep prosperity-peddling Trumpist forms that have a similar appearance in other places. The HTB/Alpha movement has birthed or nurtured new Christians, new church fellowships, worship leaders I admire, and even the current Archbishop of Canterbury. Why can I not sit with this book, that is full of some decent wisdom and pastoral guidance, and savour it freely like a fine refreshing tonic? I should be reading books like this as if it is from a friend to a friend. But I can’t. And if I try, I’m pretending.

Here’s the thing: Every time I find myself walking in proximity to the HTB hegemony, I don’t feel like a fellow-pilgrim, I feel like a customer. I read books like this looking for resonance with my own journey. I hope to find some guidance, some solace, or even some rebuke and correction from the steadying hand of an elder in the church. Instead, I have come away from it weary, feeling the same as I do after sitting in a conference room all day.

Am I just being grumpy and over-critical? Perhaps I’m just being a reverse-snob, smarting at receiving crumbs that have fallen from a table set in the shadow of Harrods? Maybe. I do have a reflexive reaction against the presumptive and proud professionalist proclivities of the Western church. But I don’t think it’s just me. There is some substance to my deconstruction.

I can pull apart this book, and I find gem after gem after gem of really good stuff. But when I take a step back to gather the bigger picture, I realise that there is something crucial that is obscured. I can’t see the cross. I see very little of the cruciform life. This book is about vocation and calling. In it, I can learn about success from someone successful. But true vocation rests not on success, but on surrender, death, and undeserved grace. Vocation, in the end, navigates a wasteland of Christ’s sufferings and those who walk it need help to die and live in the desert everyday; we only flourish as a desert rose. To extend that analogy:  This book is a manual on English gardening techniques. It is pleasant, useful, correct, aspirational, lovingly intended, and frequently applicable; but it overlooks what green English middle-class gardens always miss, that living water costs you.

Let me show my working:

The good in this book is really good:  “At the heart of the Christian faith is a big, fat why,” Costa says (page xx), “A calling for us to be here, in this place and at this time… to live out our faith and values in the rough-and-tumble of our everyday existence.” If only more Christians and more churches would be moved in this way! Costa’s pastoral heart is passionate and clear: “I have longed to strengthen those who try to make the very best of their lives” (page xxiv). I would love to have a coffee and a long chat with Ken.

The guidance he offers is focused on Jesus, and responsive to a God who cares and gives us his attention (page 3, Called to Passion), and in whom we have our fundamental sense of self (“Identity comes before destiny”, page 16). He confronts our need for salvation and restoration, and pushes back at the shames and fears that will turn us from God’s heart and lead us into stumbling and falling.

This realization that life is best savored when lived for Christ is the key to living well. It moves the center of gravity from me to him, and, in that shift, is the very basis of finding my real calling. (Page 17)

Costa is dealing with vocation, and that’s not a churchy thing. He doesn’t just break down the sacred-secular divide, he cuts across the premise of it. “There is only one sphere of influence: the kingdom of God”, he says (page 23, Called to Engage). “The world tries to atomize society, but we are called to draw together the spiritual, ethical, and vocational aspects of life” (page 27).

I particularly appreciated his dealing with the problem of distraction (page 127, Called to Focus). This is a standard, but necessary, theme for discipleship in this generation. Here his experience may make him slightly blind to those for whom money issues are not matters of distraction (page 132) but actual existence. But he takes it to the right place, including the need to turn and be captured by a desire for Jesus; i.e. to repent (metaonoia in the Greek).

No calling is complete without a true understanding of metanoia. Page 138

But the essential thing is missing or obscured. This is what has frustrated me. 

The heart of vocation is cruciform. All vocation takes us to a moment of death, surrender, and abandonment of self into the hands of God. It is there in every vocational story in the Bible. It’s Abraham with a knife on Mt. Moriah. It’s Moses-of-Egypt shuffling around Midian with his sheep. It’s David staying his slaying hand in a cave. It’s the rich young ruler facing his idol. It’s Peter weeping at the sound of a rooster. It’s Paul, blind and helpless in Damascus. It’s Jesus hungry for bread in the wilderness, and hungry for life in Gethsemane.

The exercise of vocation needs wisdom and skill and Costa is a great help with those things. But the foundation looks more like Bonhoeffer, who literally knew the Cost of Discipleship: “When God calls a man, he bids him come and die.” In my own experience, and in walking alongside people over the years, vocation is knowing how we are to be “living sacrifices.” Any sense of success is a gift and a grace. I don’t quite see this essential dynamic in Costa’s book.

The examples he uses, in the main, attach to career prospects and business or philanthropic projects. These are good points of application, but vocation is so much deeper than that.  Moses didn’t come back down from the burning bush excited about his career shift from shepherd to liberator, feeling equipped with a new-found maturity. Jonah’s careerism wasn’t enabled by his refinement in the belly of the whale, it died, and was vomited back to life, on God’s terms! David wasn’t moved by his future prospects in the wilderness, he was spiritually rent asunder until the fragments rested in the Lord his God: “You, God, are my God…   my whole being longs for you in a dry and parched land where there is no water” (Psalm 63).

Throughout this book, I kept falling into this gap between the exercise of vocation, and its cruciform foundation.

As one example, consider the prophet’s wife in the days of Elisha who needed a miracle of provision; she had nothing but a little oil in the house. Costa wants to turn this into a lesson about recognising what we have, even it is little (page 50, Called to Flourish); we should be “prepared to live by an exception.”  But the story is actually about someone who is at the end of herself, and receives a miraculous provision. She didn’t walk away from her time of indebtedness grateful for her lesson about looking on the bright side; she came out with a testimony of “I had nothing… but God…” Her family had died, so to speak, and had been restored back to life.

Another example:  I truly appreciate how Costa devotes a chapter to the seasons of delay (page 63ff, Called to Wait.)  For Costa, these seasons are a “a kind of spiritual workshop” (page 64). We might learn, alongside the footballer, Pelé, to imagine ourselves “performing like an irresistible force” (page 67).  At this point even he realises that he is in danger of slipping into the “power of positive thinking ” (page 67). His response is a subtle deflection, to cover self-actualisation with a Christian aesthetic rather than deal with the principle: Perform, but of course, don’t forget that “the source of our hope and our ability to deliver come from the Holy Spirit” (page 68). Yes, “we need to be firm, positive, and inspired to believe the promises of the Bible” (page 68), but that is the fruit of the wilderness experience, not the path that takes us through. The wilderness isn’t an object lesson in having our “dreams and determination run together” (page 75). Rather in the waiting we learn to lay it all down, until the Holy Spirit grounds our inspiration in God and not ourselves. If we seek to save our life in the wilderness, we’ve lost it.

These gaps matter. “I am no longer the arbiter of success in my life” (page 17), Costa wisely says, but the measure of success he applies in his anecdotes are usually, frankly, worldly: measures of numbers, influence, and size!  If it is that, and not the cruciform way, that seizes our vocation, then we are undone. Costa is borrowing his vocabulary (e.g. the sting of “satisfactory underperformance”, page 56) from his mercantile world, and that is not without merit. But the allure, the pursuit, of ‘success’ is a subtle idolatry that needs sanctification, not succour. Performance-drive undermines vocation. In the church world, especially, we must confront it. One of the ugliest parts of evangelical culture, the wounds of which I encounter time and time again in my walk and in others, is the invalidation of brothers and sisters; their vocations have been weighed and found wanting by some cold measure of performance that is actually extrinsic to the vocational walk of faith. Fairly or not, in caricature or otherwise, the HTB ecosystem is often that measure.

Those with a prophetic vocation would be least helped by this book. Costa rightly recognises that he buys into a framework for expressing calling that is  “a privilege of the few, and we should always see it as such” (page 81, Called to Choose). He is also wise to affirm the simple serving tasks of being a “cog in the bigger machine” (page 58). This book isn’t an insensitive triumphalist treatise! For those who are playing the game, this book will help them win it with integrity. But, for some, the game is rigged. Sometimes the machine needs breaking. At that point the prophetic vocation needs nurture and wisdom. Their “why” would collide with the milieu of this book, I think, and fall through the gap.

I admire his vulnerability in talking about fear and anxiety (page 105, Called to Courage). In fact, I found this chapter to be quite therapeutic as I brought to mind some of my own “disappointment and dashed hopes” (page 106). But again, the gap is evident, even in his theology of failure. It is good to talk about mistakes, especially painful ones, but, in the end, they are merely mistakes. It is shame that must be confronted, and Costa avoids it. “We will all fail at something at some point, we will never be failures” (page 109), he says, and skirts the issue. We can’t cover our failures with a Christian aesthetic of “There, there, think about Jesus realise that you’re not the failure.”  Rather, it is precisely at the cross that shame gives way to life. I need the cross when I am broken and wrong – when I am a failure, and not simply when I’ve mucked something up. Christ took my shame, and all my being is now a gift from him. This is how vocation is built on his grace, and not our own sequence of little discoveries of how to do things better next time.

I appreciate how Costa may struggle with “determinist philosophies” (page 83) such as that of Marx and Freud, but he should also be wary of the opposite extreme of self-determinism. He urges us to “set [our faces] like flint” (page 121) as we “throw all that we have into this struggle.”  But he is quoting from Isaiah 50:7 and the rest of it says this: “Because the Sovereign Lord helps me, I will not be disgraced, therefore have I set my face like flint, and I know I will not be put to shame.” The proactivity is not from us and our flinty faces, it is from the Lord. We realise our vocation when we realise our utter existential dependence upon God.  Costa gets close to it when he acknowledges that “there could never be a shaking so severe as to dislodge the life that Christ wanted to have in and through me” (page 122) and when he affirms an ethos of “not sink or swim but saved” (page 123). But he presents this as if its our “emergency braking system” (page 124) or some sort of safety net. It’s not; it’s our foundation, and the essence of all that we are and do.

Again, I appreciate how he doesn’t ignore the cost of calling. He quotes Paul’s overwhelming challenges (page 156, Called to Persevere). But Paul, in fact, rests his perseverance not in his “indominitable conviction”, but in surrender and being strong in weakness. “When we are cursed, we bless”, Paul says, “when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. We have become the scum of the earth, the garbage of the world—right up to this moment.” (1 Corinthians 4:12-13). Paul is compelled not by self-confidence, but by Christ’s love (2 Corinthians 5:14).  Once again, the difference between Paul and Costa, is cruciform.  All visions die; if they don’t we achieve them in our own strength. All perseverance is grounded in our total reliance on Jesus. We don’t “celebrate because our plans are completed” (page 161), we celebrate because, he has led us, and his plans have become our plans. Our plans have died, his have been completed. To God be the glory.

My frustration here echoes a broader angst. These various gaps – a tendency towards self-reliance and performance-drive, deflection by appeal to Christian aesthetics, diminution of the prophetic voice and so on – are a subtle but real characteristic of the wider church culture. They are often manifest in the nuance, and so I hope I am not reading them into Costa’s book or picking the nits. There is so much good in what Costa writes; I just want him to bring it all the way in. The gaps are subtle, but they do need addressing. Anyone who takes up this book will gain much from it. But start with Christ and the taking up of your own cross first. That is where the grace of vocation is rooted and grows; and it has deep joy.

There’s a few ways into Jon Tyson’s Beautiful Resistance.  Here’s one way:

We’ve been encountering, for a while now, the phenomenon of committed Christians who are “done with Church.”  This isn’t the cliche of people backsliding from faith, it’s more vocational than that: We were a generation that encountered Jesus and pursued the gospel and his Kingdom. Many of us did this; we gave ourselves to the institutions, submitted, learned, did our bit, and some of us were even “successful.” Inevitably, however, comes the time of deconstruction. Church and gospel collide. We have that moment when we look towards Jesus and the path of discipleship and we realise that we are looking away from his people, and not towards them. At that point there is a crisis. We weigh up whether to throw in the ecclesial towel or not, because of our love and hope, not against it.

This book speaks to our generation.

For the better part of two decades, I have had a complex relationship with the institution called the church. Jesus called her a bride, one of my atheist friends called her a wench, and I have experienced her as both… I am also grieved by my failures and personal contribution to the staining of her reputation. (Pages 9-10)

I’m sure that you have felt the same desire to escape the drama of the church in our modern life of faith. At night you probably have deep questions about whether staying involved is worth it. Worth the misunderstanding, worth the heartache, worth the credibility hits, worth the sacrifice. And I am sure that some around you have come to the conclusion that it is not. They have wavered and shrunk back, preferring spirituality over religion, and given up on the institution known as the church. Maybe you are reading this at a time when you are struggling to see the point of the church when she is stained by so much compromise. Maybe you would like to retreat to that easier place of spirituality without religion. But I’m guessing that deep down in your heart you actually long for more. (Page 166)

Here’s another way in:

Our generation has struggled to find its native leaders. We have leaned back into older faces: the likes of Packer, Wright, Stott, Willard, and Chalke (depending on where you see your home). Those are good giants with good shoulders, but the road to our own voice has been complicated.

Our voice fledged twenty years ago or so. Remember the battle of the “Mars Hills”? We had Rob Bell who drew us in with Nooma but sold out and faded out with Oprah and insipid universalism. We had Mark Driscoll who drew us in with keeping it real and relevant and somewhat M-rated, but who badgered us like the bully on the school bus and ran headlong into his own belligerence. The leadership of our generation, sitting at the pivot point between the Boomers and the Millenials and beyond, needed to grow up.

I think we’re beginning to find those maturer voices now. The sort of voices with a couple of more decades in them that have been through some wastelands. I’m thinking of people like John Mark Comer and Pete Greig and others of similar ilk (nominate your own in the comments). These voices speak fluent postmodern – truth is to be experienced not just thought – but have avoided the naivete of intersectional deconstruction. They speak to formation, and not the reductionism of getting numbers onto pews, or into heaven. They are beginning to hit the balance between winsome relevance and being prophetically distinct. Jon Tyson is one of these voices.

It might be confirmation bias on my part, though! Like me, Tyson is Australian. Like me, he is called as a missionary to the Western world. Like me, he has left his hemisphere and set up camp in a foreign land. He’s been a lot more successful than me, but good on him; unlike other ex-pat Aussies, it doesn’t seem to have gone to his head.

This book is Tyson’s significant contribution to a spirituality of mission that takes the context of the Western church seriously. It hits the sweet spot between pastoral call to individuals, and apostolic call to churches to live out and pursue the truth of the gospel. He makes us ponder if “Christ or culture will have the ascendancy in our generation” (p1).

The resistance Tyson speaks of, is therefore responsive to who we are as God’s people and where we are in this broken world. He frames the whole book with an anecdote from Bonhoeffer countering the power of Nazi Germany with the “beautiful resistance” of humble discipleship. In the same light Tyson ponders about “our cultural moment and the compromise rampant in our day” (p4). The chapters he leads us into summarises what follows:

Worship Must Resist Idolatry
Rest Must Resist Exhaustion
Hunger Must Resist Apathy
Hospitality Must Resist Fear
Honor Must Resist Contempt
Love Must Resist Hate
Sacrifice Must Resist Privilege
Celebration Must Resist Cynicism

The chapter on worship recognises that our Western world has no “reference point for idolatry” (p24) and therefore offers no guidance for our desires and passions. The unresistant church adopts the same passions as the world, and we end up with a “church more informed by… cultural preferences than [God’s] Word” (p33).  Tyson’s exploration of this issues touches my centrist heart; his ability to identify and counter the idolatry of both left and right extremes is admirable. He has the cultural insight of a missionary; he has had to come to grips with the “ecosystem of power and approval” in his context of New York similarly to how I’ve has to wrestle with a sense of the English middle class. Tyson envisages the beautiful resistance:

The church exists as a counterformative community to confront our idolatry. So we don’t go to church for entertainment. No, what we’re really working for here is transformation into the image of Jesus. (Page 38)

The chapter on rest speaks to how we “ache for peace in the world, but many of our lifestyles are a form of violence to ourselves and those we love” (p46). There are many people speaking right now about the weariness and pressure and distraction of contemporary life. Tyson takes us to the difference between mere “relaxing” and true “rest” which comes with a movement “from fear to trust… from anxiety to peace.. from control to surrender” (p54).

We need a framework of Sabbath that makes Jesus’s invitation to rest a reality in our lives. (Page 51)

The chapter on hunger is about “confronting our spiritual numbness” (p64). This is a topic that should be talked about more in church circles! The age-old conundrum for anyone pursuing mission is this: How can we get people to simply care more? We pursue techniques and programs, and we have forgotten that it is, in the end, a spiritual task. Tyson’s advice is to “begin again with fasting” – literal, physical fasting – as a resistance to the stultifying culture that wraps everything around what we feel, and what we want (p71). It’s a worthy thought; “we have tried every other type of solution… “this kind” will come out only through prayer and fasting” (p75).

I urge you – let your hunger resist your apathy. (Page 77)

The chapter on hospitality addresses a culture of fear. This book, although dated as 2020, was written pre-pandemic and before the death of George Floyd; the relevance of it has only increased. Tyson explores the process of exclusion (p82), again with admirable centrism that sees the fear-centre of both the progressives and the conservatives. He allows the scandal of an inclusion, exclusively centred on Jesus: “…hospitality wasn’t one of Jesus’s strategies; it was the strategy… Jesus was able to model what our culture is craving – spaces of welcome where strangers, enemies, outsiders, and others can become our friends (pp86-87).

Jesus created pockets of love in a culture of fear that formed a new kind of community in the world, something he called “the church.” The church was to exist not as a haven from the world but as a place of hope for the world. (Page 87)

The chapter on honour is in the same vein. It recognises the complexity of shame and dysfunction within Western cultural contexts: “the elderly are dismissed, traditions are mocked, the past is erased, hopelessness settles in, prejudice is assumed, and conflict is inevitable” (p110). This is the cultural minefield set before anyone who seeks to engage in community life. In answer, Tyson takes us to Jesus’ “filter of honor for all he encountered… regardless of the contempt their culture showed them, he saw differently” (p105).

I can’t help but imagine the power and beauty of a community that saw everyone through an honor filter. What would happen if every person’s story, calling, sacrifice, gifts, and future were held in view? If people were seen as crowned with glory and coheirs with Christ? I believe conflict would be transformed, young people would be filled with vision, the elderly would be respected, teh marginalized would be empowered, adn the invisible would be seen… This community would be unlike any other – this community would be like the kingdom of heaven on earth. (Page 109)

The chapter on love takes us to the countercultural sense of agapé, or “enemy love.” It resists hate, but not in the sense of current rhetoric where “hate” and “love” are weaponised in the culture wars. Rather, Tyson would have us follow Jesus into these societal battlegrounds, with surrendering love: “The arena can be transformed again. But only if we’re ready to act on our faith” (p122). There is suffering in this type of beautiful resistance.

Our enemies hurt us. Our enemies abuse us. Our enemies do violence to us. This can cause horrific trauma and require deep healing, boundaries, and grief. Jesus, however, experienced all this suffering and still insisted on love. (Page 126)

The chapter on sacrifice counters the prevalence of unseen privilege. His exploration is both honest and gracious; he recognises the reality of privilege, but avoids language which shames in response.  Toxic privilege is rooted in fear, the answer is humility and grace. “We can serve without fear because the kingdom is a gift, not something we earn. From that position of security, we can humble ourselves without any anxiety” (p137). We are shaped by the mind of Christ in Philippians 2; where we have privilege, we give it away. “Servanthood resists privilege, and the kingdom takes root” (p141).

Jesus redefined greateness as the distribution of our unearned cultural advantage on behalf of others. Rather than fighting over rights and responsibilities, Jesus calls us to redirect our privilege for others. (Page 139)

And finally, the chapter on celebration is a resistance to cynicism. The sentiment of pointlessness is pervasive in our community, and our churches.  I certainly encounter it, not just in myself, but in a younger generation; what have we bequeathed?  They are  launching from the nest into a cloud streaked with GFC, climate crisis, and pandemic. The answer is not pesudo-idealism, the “telling of positive anecdotes that will makes us feel better” (p144). The answer is hope, in the service of a “joyful God” in which we put our confidence, including confidence in his truth (p150).

Jesus insisted that the work of God demands celebration. He is in the world, bringing good news, welcoming the outsider, restoring the lost, binding up the broken. The question is, Will we join the feast or issue excuses? (Page 155)

Throughout it all, there is a common thread. This book is a work of applied ecclesiologyThis is a book about how to be the churchwithout guile.

I found it fanning some lingering embers back into flame. The Church is still the temple of God, a place for his presence (p13). The Church is still the body of Christ, existing to express God on earth (p18). Indeed, “there is a rumour going around the West that, in spit of the avalanche of change and often-repeated accusation of irrelevance, a church has actually survived. Yes she is stained; yes, she is broken; but she is here. Her Lord is working within her. The bride is becoming beautiful; his presence is becoming tangible; the body is becoming functional. Beauty is rising and resisting the brokenness” (p20).

Tyson prays “Lord, bring your body to life” (p20), and I remember praying the same thing years ago, in the sweet land of immature zeal. Now, in the present, wedged between ecclesiastical nihilism on one side and triumphalism on the other, I, for one, need to re-voice those old and true prayers, from lips now tempered with struggle and salted with sweat and tears. Tyson is a brother to me at this point, giving me some words to use, and thoughts to think.

I read this book while on a recent holiday. During this we visited the Holy Island in Northumberland and chanced upon Cuthbert’s island, just off-shore, accessible only at low-tide. In its day, it was a place of solitude, a place of prayer, a place of spiritual travail. You could feel it in the rocks.

I don’t know much about Cuthbert. But I know he prayed there, at and soon after a time of collision in the British church between the Roman body and the Celtic spirit. Cuthbert invested himself at the Lindisfarne Priory as the Irish monks retreated, and answered the call to a spiritual travail for the soul of nation and church.

We found ourselves praying there, reflecting on the collisions we see in church, world, and between the two. It was something of a vocational recommitment for me. Tyson’s words were in my reflections and I realised I had found something anthemic in them. It isn’t complicated. It’s just that we need to be God’s people.

It is time.

We are God’s people, we are disciples of Jesus. Within this broken, loved world, it is our time for beautiful resistance.

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