Author: Stephan Bauman
Publisher: WaterBrook Multnomah Publishers
"These principles apply equally to us, to our own families, churches, schools, and organizations. Without a biblical understanding of wealth in its full array…"–140
In my mind, this quote, albeit shortened but not wholly out of context, sums up this book's major problem. In my opinion, it was entirely too focused on issues surrounding money (or finance, or microfinance, or economics, or capital, etc.) and there was nothing about it that was a specific call to the church. A specific call to the church may or may not have been Bauman's objective, but there's enough language within the book that made me think he was writing from a christian perspective and that he might be issuing a summons to the church to get up and get busy. At this point we might agree, but the above quote puts the whole book in perspective: these principles apply to anyone, anywhere, and within any group and the church is merely another group or organization that needs to get on board.
Thus the church may or may not be relevant to his conversation. Frankly, I came away from the book wondering.
This seems to me sort of ironic given how much connection his organization, World Relief, seems to have with the church (see above link). He notes on page 130 that "…if you are passionate about development economics, microfinance, or fair trade, you would ideally also have an MBA in business, finance, or banking, and your network would span both the academic and professional worlds, reaching also into the majority world." I came away from the book thinking that perhaps for the work he is asking us to do an M. Div. might be of more use; however, the most significant problem I see in the book is he talks a lot about money and finance and broken people–all important topics, yes, but what about the message that accompanies all these good works he is asking us to do? I struggled mightily to find a place in the book where we are explicitly called to speak the Gospel using our mouths.
I am not one to sit here behind my computer screen typing furious criticisms about those who are going out into the so-called third world and helping victims of violence, refugees of war, oppressed children and women, and so on. No. That's not nearly my point. The point is that we can very well go into the world and fix this and fix that and elevate this person and give them relief for a little while, but what happens when we never talk about why we are there, about who compelled us to be there, and the message that provokes our every move? To be sure, he does talk about the Gospel on pages 80-82 (and other places too) but really only to point out that the Gospel is not only about evangelism and 'saving us from our sins.' Here we agree. The Gospel is also about what we do, yes!, and again, Yes! But Bauman is nearly taking his criticism to the point of excluding a Word at all. So if his point is that we must include deeds of social justice/activism alongside our preaching of the Gospel, then let him also note that we cannot cut off the right hand just to empower the left. As Rich Mullins was wont to sing, "Faith without works is like a screen door on a submarine" I might turn it around and say something like, "Works without the Word is, well, just works."
If faith without works leaves God with a black eye or cripples Christianity (81), then how much does it damage people who see our good deeds but never hear our words? I think there needs to be a balance because our mission is not to simply go into the world 'for the greater good' or even to 'change the world.' Our mission is to go into the world and bring the world good news of the saving grace of God through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. People may well see our good deeds and give praise to the Father, but faith comes by hearing the Word of God. I think Bauman should have striven for more balance to his approach.
I'll go a little further with this criticism. In Appendix B (pp 173-182) Bauman goes into great detail about what a community is and how to build that community. As I read it, I kind of shook my head because, well, don't we already have a community? Isn't that community already defined? And most of those communities have already discovered, bridged, and mobilized their assets. I wonder just a little about why he seems to think the church is not enough. So two things happened for me. One, I questioned who is audience was and, two, I came away from the book not feeling like Bauman has a very strong opinion of the church or at least not much confidence in the church as an agent of God's activism in this world. If the church is merely another organization in the world that seeks to 'change culture,' then perhaps we can rightly ask if the church is at all necessary?
I will venture one final squabble and that is with his conception of who Jesus was and what Jesus came to do here on earth. On page 30 Bauman writes these strange two paragraphs:
"If you believe we need to desperately change how we change the world, and if you sense we are experiencing an unprecedented moment in history, then where do we start?
Just as with Luther and Jesus and Bono and so many others: with a complaint."
I confess that these two sentences trouble me for three reasons. First, is he really lumping Jesus in with Luther and Bono? Second, is he really saying that Jesus did what he did because of mere complaint? Third, was Jesus a mere activist? Reformer? I'm not going to dwell here except to say that Jesus must not be relegated to mere activist with a complaint and his work must not be mitigated to mere reformation–as if Jesus went around doing nothing but fixing all the world's broken people and stuff. His work was much more comprehensive and lasting. And he rarely fixed anything without also preaching the Good News. Again, I wanted balance and it was not there.
I understand full well what Bauman is saying and what he is hoping to accomplish in this book and to a certain degree I fully agree with him: the world is really a terrible place at times and God has raised us up to do something about it and often the church fails. I don't think our world is experiencing an unprecedented crisis as he seems to think or that it is now somehow worse than it was 15, 20 or 100 years ago. Every generation can say they live in unprecedented times of social and cultural crisis. So, the saying is true: "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!" I'm not even saying that starting with a complaint is a bad idea. I am saying that this version of Jesus does not satisfy what the Scripture has taught us about Jesus and why Jesus came to the earth in the first place and when we neglect that, then we are going to be unbalanced in the work we are called to do. There are plenty of people who can do activism and advocate for the weak and forgotten. If that's all Jesus came for, then it seems like it may have been a wasted trip.
Balance is what this book fails to achieve.
The book reads fast. I came away at times out of breath the pace is so fast. He tells a lot of stories that are, indeed, compelling, moving, and heart wrenching. I confess that I kind of grew weary of reading about his wife's work. I also wondered what some of the stories had to do with the church. Just because a person does something activism related doesn't necessarily mean they are doing Kingdom work; a good work, perhaps, but not necessarily a God work. And finally I'm still a little concerned that his overall point is that we need to work on 'changing the culture' (103). I am just not sure that's the point. It's a nice idea, but it's not practical; it's compelling, but not the Messiah's objective.
All told, there's not anything wrong with his ideas (I'm a little hazy on exactly what the blueprint is) and there's nothing in the book that is necessarily opposed to Jesus and there are plenty of times when I agreed with him heartily (e.g., his discussion in chapter 3 about 'calling'). He quotes all the right people and tells all the right stories from Tolkien, Lewis, Bonhoeffer, and others. At the heart, who can disagree that we need to get up and get something done for the people of the world? My criticism of this book is that its under-girding theology is weak and there is a deep sense of imbalance between going and speaking.
[Disclaimer: I was provided with an ARC via Multnomah-WaterBrook Blogging for Books book review program. I was not compensated or asked to write a favorable review, just an honest review. Thanks for stopping by and reading. Reviews are also available at Amazon.com and Goodreads.]