If you’re a value-conscious book buyer, you owe yourself a copy of Andrew Byers’ Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint (IVP Books, 2011). This book packs a bigger wallop than its 211 pages suggest.
However, I wouldn’t plan to read it at the beach. Byers addresses serious matters, and the depth of his discussion isn’t light reading; his argument will demand your full attention.
The book is written in two parts. In Part One, Pop Christianity: What Makes Us Cynical, he reviews the “…other illnesses that make themselves manifest through a disheartening menagerie of unrealistic clichés and platitudes repeated with alarming frequency in pop Christianity” (page 25). He discusses idealism, religiosity, experientialism, anti-intellectualism and cultural irrelevance, devoting a chapter to each element.
In this first section of the book he seasons his writing with a generous handful of personal experiences. For example, in his discussion of experientialism he writes:
We have learned that spiritual experiences can lead to spiritual pride. I remember sitting in a Bible study as a college freshman and hearing about the prophecy that Elijah was to one day return and lead a revival among God’s people. Suddenly, I was overcome with shock and excitement because, with the authenticating sense of a divine revelation, the thought occurred to me that I was Elijah (page 76; emphasis in original).
I have a soft place in my heart for authors who write with that level of honesty.
His point is that the trappings of pop Christianity can lead to disillusionment, which in turn can lead to cynicism among Christians. In Part Two, Biblical Alternatives to Cynicism, Byers shows a healthier response.
Though the prophets, sages, and poets of Israel exhibit much in common with the cynicism we see directed toward God and the church today, their indignation and misery were ultimately more constructive than destructive. The despair and fury are not to be blunted or dismissed, but it must be acknowledged that their ministries were ultimately grounded in the unfolding drama of God’s redemption and restoration of all things (pages 119-120, author’s italics).
In this section of the book he details, in a chapter apiece, The Way of the Prophet: Prophetic Anguish instead of Cynical Anger, The Way of the Sage: Biblical Wisdom instead of Cynical Intellectualism, The Way of the Tragic Poet: Worshipful Lament Instead of Cynical Complaint, The Way of the Christ, Sacrificial Embrace Instead of Cynical Rejection, and On the Roads to Emmaus and Damascus: Resurrection, Paul, and Hopeful Realism. He draws a picture of the hopeful realist, who stands at a midpoint between the idealist and the cynic, and follows Christ without illusions.
Byers’ arguments are scholarly; they’re well-constructed and carefully documented. This writer is not afraid to cast a wide net to illustrate and support his position, citing everyone from Bonhoeffer to REM, N.T. Wright to Victor Hugo. He also provides liberal Scripture references to illuminate his points.
Personally, the first part of the book resonated deeply within me. My husband and I recently moved from a megachurch (you’d know its name) to a small congregation in our neighborhood. We’ve found singing hymns with fifty others, accompanied by a piano and a guitar, and praying with our neighbors more authentic than worshiping with a professional praise band among thousands of strangers. Our new pastor digs deeper into the Word each week—maybe because he can see every face in the pews and can tell if he’s losing us.
It’s easier for me to remember, in my new, face-to-familiar-face church, that God weeps when we disobey.
The second part of the book was interesting and thorough, but it didn’t ring in my heart as essentially as the first part did. Sadly, that’s because the cynics I know haven’t stayed cynical within the church; they’ve fallen away completely.
All the same, I’m grateful to have read it. Because when I’m really honest with myself, I’ve done more complaining than worshipful lament.
This book gave me enough food for thought to feed my brain for weeks. I hope you read it.