Book Review: Primal Fire
Title: Primal Fire
Author: Neil Cole
Free Study Guide: BookClubHub
Neil Cole on Twitter: @Neil_Cole
Neil Cole Blogs at: Cole-Slaw
Interview with Neil Cole & Frank Viola concerning the Organic Church movement
Alan Hirsch: The Forgotten Ways
[I include this link only because Cole frequently refers to Hirsch. Those who want more information can follow the link. I make no judgments one way or the other.]
[I am required to inform you that the FCC wants you to know I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my unbiased review here at my blog. I have also uploaded copies of this review to http://www.amazon.com & www.goodreads.com & www.shelfari.com.]
I spent the better part of 20 years of my life in the church as a 'professional' preacher. It was my life. I have lived and moved among congregations, read books & commentaries by the best scholars, and spent considerable time listening to other preachers and teachers who expounded upon the Scriptures. In short, I love the church and I love listening to those whose calling is to make sense of the church, the Scripture, and how the two relate to one another and, consequently, how the church relates and ministers to the lost and one another.
Today, April 27, 2014, I skipped church and instead stayed home and listened to a sermon by Tim Keller called Everyone with a Gift, based on Romans 12:1-8. It was unintentional. That is, it happened to be next on the list of sermons from Keller I hadn't listened to yet on my iTunes. So I listened to Keller who also announced, at some point during the sermon, that he had been at Redeemer for 22 years and had never preached on Romans 12. What intrigued me was how he began the sermon because the Lord seemed to orchestrate the hearing of this sermon with what I had just finished reading in Neil Cole's Primal Fire. Keller said:
[We are] talking about the kind of church we want to become. We are the kind of church that when you come here you get Gospel ministry. There are pastors, preachers–there are leaders that bering the Gospel to bear on your life and you change and you grow. But we want to become a church in which you don't just come to receive that from a limited number of people, but a church in which everyone is equipped and knows how to give it to one another. Every member Gospel ministry. Every member not just receiving it, but knows how to give it, and how to serve others with it. (My emphasis)
So here is a man, highly respected by all who hear and read and listen to him, who has been preaching at the same place for 22 years, who seemingly all of a sudden realized that the church needed to become something different. Frankly, it makes me respect Keller even more than I did before because within this admission that the church needed to change is an admission that perhaps they had been doing something wrong or at least that they could do things better.
Primal Fire is a strange book for me because I grew up in the church. I mean, there has hardly been a moment in my life when I have not, at some level, been involved in church: altar boy in the Methodist church, preacher in the Christian Churches, Bible College student, member in an Anglican church–and all I have ever seen is a top-down style of church organization: preacher at the top and everyone else at the bottom; scarcely even a pyramid by pyramid standards. When I think about my own time in ministry in the local church, I have no problem at all understanding why I burned out, why I am no longer in ministry. Frankly, I don't know how any man or woman stays in ministry in that sort of environment–you know, the kind where the preacher is the visionary, the preacher, the shepherd, the teacher, the custodian; an elder, a deacon, a prayer warrior, a secretary, and so on and so forth. It is brutal. It is wrong. It is unbiblical.
Yet I also think about those times in my ministries when I tried to change things– things such as, instead of writing on the Sunday bulletin: Minister: Jerry L. Hillyer we changed it and wrote: Ministers: All the People and then actually to have the nerve to begin the process of helping all the people learn how to serve. Or like the time when a member of my own family was dying and someone in the church had the audacity to ask me why I wasn't visiting a member of the church who was in the hospital and was going to live when no one was even attempting to minister to us. Or like the time when I thought a change to the order of worship was necessary in order to change the focus of the worship and…well, just use your imagination.
So, Primal Fire. There are points in the book when I find Cole's exegesis a little awkward and there are times when I find his exegesis absolutely brilliant. There are times when I shook my head in disbelief and other times when I shook my fist in glad triumph. There are times when I thought he was splitting a hair and other times when I thought he wasn't going deep enough. Yet, at the end of the book (which, to be sure, I thought was about 25-30 pages too long) I found myself mostly in agreement with the overall point he was attempting to make: "We have allowed [a] worldly and ungodly command-and-control system to infiltrate and dominate the church" (37). He goes on:
The devil himself wants us to remain stuck in the current quagmire of the cosmos. Imagine a Kingdom ruled by Jesus, where each person has direct contact with the King and moves at His impulse. Imagine what our loving and all-knowing Creator could do with a body so responsive to His voice. (37)
I believe Cole is correct: "Jesus didn't die and rise from the dead so that a small portion of the church could possess the authority that comes from a godly life…Jesus didn't bleed and die so that some of us can have a career" (38, 54). I agree and it is sad that in America, at least, we find this to be very much the case. And from my point of view, I'll tell you exactly what it has done: it has created a class of elitist ministers. We have not replicated servants, we have, by and large, sent some folks to the grave early: Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. In the church we talk a lot about this; we scarcely live it out on a day to day basis which is a major reason why many of us leave or are forced out of ministry in the church. On the other hand, perhaps that is entirely the point: now that we are no longer 'professionals' of the church, we can truly be servants. Imagine if that were a part of God's plan all along. So rather than lament the loss of a professional class, perhaps we ought to rejoice in the raising up of true servants who serve the church for no other reason than to equip the saints and bring glory to God–and who do not happen to collect a paycheck for their services.
There are times Cole makes some rather sweeping generalizations that are a bit unfair and might reflect his bias for his own understanding of the church rather than represent actual evidence (maybe). For example, he writes that 'as it stands now, our people are ill-equipped and our churches do not adequately reflect Christ in the world (98).' Frankly, I think this is a bit unfair. If, as Cole himself notes, we do not need to have agreement on what church model or style is appropriate (page 71), then it seems to me that we probably should not sit in judgment of those churches whose model reflects something different than ours. What is important, however, is that each church examine themselves and see if they need to change to a more biblical model. (He also wrote: "The package we call 'church' today is an artificial construct that confines, imbalances, and even ignores gifts" (246). I think this is a bit harsh and a bit too sweeping; although, in many ways it is probably true. The corporate model of church 'leadership' really does hinder the church in many ways, among the ways it does so, is that the church needs more and more and more money to exist.)
There were also times when Cole simply caught me off guard and challenged my preconceived ideas and unmasked some of my theological 'prejudice.' For example, I am rather faithful to my cessationist preconceptions. I have struggled with this aspect of Scripture more than any other (except perhaps women's roles, another aspect of the book where Cole challenged me greatly) in part because of my denominational upbringing and in other parts because I simply have not been privy to such actions on God's part (television preachers have done nothing to lessen my skepticism). It was at this crossroads of skepticism and belief that Cole caught me off guard: "Perhaps if more of us took steps of faith into dangerous places, we too would see God work miraculously" (154). I had to regroup after reading this because I think he nailed it. Maybe the sort of miracles we are looking for are simply not the kind of miracles that God thinks are necessary. Maybe we Christians need to be a lot less concerned about what we can do comfortably without miracles and more willing to do something uncomfortable that requires the God of the Cross who does miracles.
Finally, I like Cole's attention to the short letter to the Ephesians (and other Scripture too, but the book is mostly about Ephesians). I mean to say that he really plowed that letter deep and if there is anything I appreciate in a book, it's a deep plowing of Scripture. If you like such things, you will not be disappointed. I'm not saying that I always agreed with his conclusions, but I am saying that I enjoyed the fact that he kept going back to the text over and over and over again, reworking his thoughts, squeezing more life from the text, looking at it from different angles, developing different 'outlines' of the text, and helping his readers to view it more carefully and thoughtfully each time. It's impossible to come away from the book thinking about Ephesians the same way after reading Primal Fire.
Future editions of the book ought to give serious consideration to including an index and an extensive reference or resource list. I get that the book is meant for a popular audience, but even some popular audiences want to dig deeper and do more research. Also, I seriously think that several of the chapters found at the end of the book (section 3, chapters 16-18) should be their own book and eliminated from this volume (or maybe linked to at an online source) They needed to be deeper, but by the time I got to them, I had read a lot of it already and it became very repetitive.
In Tim Keller's sermon I referenced above, he tells the story about a girl who wanted to be a missionary. She prayed and said to God that she was letting go of her life, giving it to God, and 'taking her hands off her own life.' To make a long story short, she never quite got her way because she realized at some point after all her training that she had never really 'taken her hands off her life' completely. This is a difficult story to swallow because if it means anything it might mean that the church hasn't either–far from merely a personal problem, this might be a larger problem some churches are facing. Maybe Primal Fire is one way of saying to such churches: It's time to take your hands off yourself and truly, passionately, lay down your life for Jesus.
At the end of the day, our lives, are about love. I think this book is pointing us in that direction: "That love is the relational authority that opens doors in conversation and provides the relational connections necessary to the [church's] work" (186). If the church ever truly grasps the significance of the APEST gifts, and every church will have to examine itself to see if the APEST needs more application among them, we must remember to do all things in and with love.
Yeah, that. Love.