I want to start by saying a word about book reviews. In printed sources, you will often find book reviews that will retrace the argument of a book and then present the overall strengths and weaknesses of that book. It seems that in the blogosphere, book reviews tend to skip the first step and then hone in on one particular issue within the book to either praise or bash for the remainder of the review. Have you ever seen a review like this: The book is about education, but mentions the atonement once; therefore, our daring reviewer spends her 500 words focusing in on that one reference to atonement instead of helping us to know if our interest in education would be informed by reading the book. I hope, instead, to approach book reviews in the same manner as that in printed media (journals, newspapers, etc) that would make it acceptable to genuine peer review. More than this, I desperately hope to critique a book in a way that challenges me, the author, and any who read both the reviewed book and my comments about it.
According to its subtitle, A Contrarian’s Guide to Knowing God (CG) is billed as an introduction to “spirituality for the rest of us.” The author, Larry Osborne, is lead pastor of North Coast Church (http://www.northcoastchurch.com) in Vista, CA which has grown from 127 people to more than 6,000 weekly attendees at their 4 campuses. The first thing you’ll read regarding the book itself will be:
If you don’t fit the mold…
If you’re tired of adjusting to other people’s definitions of spirituality…
If traditional spiritual disciplines just aren’t working for you…
If all the standard answers aren’t enough…
…but your deepest desire
is to know God more…
Here’s Spirituality for the Rest of Us
I used to think of myself as a contrarian, which for me was a nice way of saying that I was a rebel. But, if you’ve read the Retrospect&Prospect home page, then you know that I believe it is never fully healthy to be a contrarian as it tends to blind us to the wisdom of the past. This is not a blanket acceptance of past spiritual practices. The paying of indulgences, homage paid to the tombs of saints and their bones, and self-flagellation are all practices that I believe are contrary to scripture and unhelpful in forming true Christ like character. So, I came to this book a little skeptical.The book itself deals with a wide range of spiritual issues from small group spirituality to faith to the spiritual disciplines to what is God looking for from us in the first place.
There were definitely some things about the CG that I did enjoy, most of which were Osborne’s knack for saying things in a way that put a name to an important issue. For instance, his term “Best Practices Overload” is a perfect coinage for what so many Christians have dealt with, be it because they read a lot of Christian biography and feel compelled to study like Edwards, pray like Howells, and preach like Moody, or because they’ve had these examples pushed on them from well meaning pastors or friends. Osborne nails it on the head by simply reminding us that 24 hour days do not allow for a combination of all of the Christian “Best Practices,” and that this is where our personal gifts and callings come into play.
I appreciated his term “Glasshouse Living” which is just a simple way of saying that the best accountability occurs when a larger number of people have free access to (can see into) your life. His chapter on faith and it’s relationship to obedience (namely that faith without works is dead) is very good. Lastly, his chapter on living a balanced life is one that I need to think through a few more times. In every season of life, for every single person, with every different gift and calling, is the goal really to balance everything? To be equally as good at all things? Or ought not the Christian to understand their gifts and calling in such a way that they give greater emphasis, time, and effort to some things over and against others? Sounds like being out of balance…and yet, definitely something to consider.
I could list another handful of useful tidbits (I love the phrase and idea of “gift projection” and totally agree that spiritual growth looks more like the Dow Jones Industrial Average graph than a straight line towards enlightenment! And I have to say that the “Dimmer Switch Principle” was a simple and profound description of an idea that I’ve known for a long time, but never this clearly) from CG, but I don’t want to give the entire book away here!
While there were a number of points, chapters, or illustrations that I appreciated in CG, on the whole, I was left concerned for any that would look to build their spiritual lives around this book. This is due to two main reasons. First, Osborne seems to be arguing against straw-men without realizing it. What I mean is this: Numerous times, the author will draw our attention to a specific area of the spiritual life and demonstrate the faulty thinking behind this practice, and then he would give a recommendation for that area of spiritual life. The problem with this is that he only shows the faulty thinking behind the abuses of certain “disciplines” and yet his recommendations are often a “don’t worry about it” approach or a “discard the practice all-together” approach. For instance, Osborne argues that accountability groups don’t work because sometimes people lie in accountability groups, therefore, accountability groups don’t actually help someone grow spiritually. He has argued against a practice because it has been abused, not necessarily because it isn’t beneficial.
Similarly, Osborne argues against extra-Biblical bounderies. His reason for doing so is because people have tried to force these boundaries onto others to the detriment of all involved. He is definitely right that people have tried to force extra-Biblical boundaries onto others, but does this mean that it is unwise to consider if I might erect a boundary or two for myself? Is this not what the Proverbs recommends when it says to not even go near the door of an adultress’s house? Is it a sin to walk past her house? No, of course not. But wisdom encourages us to avoid these potentially dangerous circumstances. Is this not a boundary? And is this not what Osborne himself is recommending when he suggests one struggling with internet pornography to move their computer into the living room instead of the bedroom?
One final example is the chapter on potential. Osborne argues against the idea of Christians attempting to fulfill their potential, but he assumes that when they think of potential, that they think the same thing as the myriad of self-help gurus of the world (more money, more pride, more stuff, more me-me-me). If worldly potential was all that one could pursue, then I would agree with Osborne, but I know a number of believers who are attempting to fulfill their potential through developing their spiritual gifts, through growing in sacrificial giving, and through the willingness to suffer for Christ in the hard, unreached nations of the world.
My suspicion is that Osborne would not necessarily be against accountability, boundaries, and potential in the form that I just shared which I assume is just a description of how the Godly man or woman might think about and practice these disciplines or areas of the spiritual life. In fact, it seems that Osborne often came back to practices (even a number of chapters later) that he had jettisoned earlier in the book and then recommend a right use for them. Perhaps more time revising the layout of the book could have solved some of this confusion.
The second problem which I see in CG is that Osborne’s argument for “average” Christianity has a number of problems with it. The first problem is that he does not define “average” or “normal.” Does he use average in the same way that Watchman Nee uses “normal” in his classic The Normal Christian Life? Does he intend to equate the “average” Christian with what seems to be expected of all believers by Bonhoeffer in his The Cost of Discipleship? Or does he mean that there is little expected of believers, or that Godliness is easy to attain, or that loving God with all our minds is optional for those that don’t like to read or think about important issues. I’m not arguing for every believer to be an Aquinas, an Edwards, or whatever brilliant theologian/scholar comes to mind. To answer Osborne’s question: No, God doesn’t prefer smart people. Nor do I assume that every Christian is supposed to be a “leader.” That has to do with their gifts.
I’m not even talking about being an avid reader, but when 2,000 years of Christian history has encouraged believers to think rightly about God and to pursue Him through various practices commonly called “disciplines” I would be reticent to throw these out, only giving attention to them in times of distress (need to grow) or times when heretical teaching arrives on my front steps (need to know) as Osborne seems to advocate. I actually appreciate these two phrases: need to know and need to grow. I think that they do highlight significant points in our lives; however, wouldn’t wisdom suggest that it’s too late to put on our armor when the battle has begun?
So instead of encouraging brilliance and charisma, what I think we can expect from every believer is pursuit. It will definitely look different for each one, as Osborne makes clear (he does a good job of sharing how he uses the disciplines himself). Osborne recommends the Corinthian cobbler as the “average” Christian. This is a good move, but we must remember from Church History that is was not the Pauls and Peters so much as the Corinthians cobblers who spread the Gospel throughout the Roman world. Paul did his part, but it was moreso achieved because normal men and women–tentmakers, fabric dyers, cobblers, tradesmen, craftsmen–pursued God and proclaimed the Gospel wherever they found themselves. Reading pagan descriptions of the early Church reveals lowly, uneducated men and women who have been transformed by Christ, living well above what might be expected of an “average” believer today, so we are back to our problem of definition. What do you mean by average? Do you mean early-church-transform-the-Roman-world-average or a more modern if-anything-is-hard-or-uncomfortable-then-don’t-worry-about-it-average?
A good part of me wonders if I’ve misunderstood Osborne. Perhaps he would heartily agree with each statement here. If so, then the fault may lie with the editor whose job it is to foresee the ability of the readers to track with the author. Or, perhaps it was me. I welcome feedback from anyone else who has read the book. Of all the other reviews I’ve seen of this book, they’ve read much more like blurbs that fail to actually speak to anything specifically from the book.
Again, let me close by saying that some of the pieces of this book are great. It is not these pieces that I struggle against, but the overall layout of Osborne’s spiritual theology, namely that becoming Christlike doesn’t ever include effort or forethought and that everything that we’ve understood about knowing God for 2,000 years is borderline useless. This is an area that I hope to read much more on in the coming months. Until then I’ll leave you with two recommendations. First, for a academic (almost to a fault) look at spirituality and knowing God, see Simon Chan’s Spiritual Theology. For a great look at the spiritual disciplines, I would recommend John Ortberg’s The Life You’ve Always Wanted. This is an eternally important issue, and I hope that this review will benefit those that read it.