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Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World [Hardcover]

John G. Stackhouse Jr.
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

March 11 2008
What should be the Christian's attitude toward society? When so much of our contemporary culture is at odds with Christian beliefs and mores, it may seem that serious Christians now have only two choices: transform society completely according to Christian values or retreat into the cloister of sectarian fellowship. In Making the Best of It, John Stackhouse explores the history of the Christian encounter with society, the biblical record, and various theological models of cultural engagement to offer a more balanced and fruitful alternative to these extremes. He argues that, rather than trying to root up the weeds in the cultural field, or trying to shun them, Christians should practice persistence in gardening God's world and building toward the New Jerusalem. Examining the lives and works of C. S. Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer for example and direction, Stackhouse suggests that our mission is to make the most of life in the world in cooperation with God's own mission of redeeming the world he loves.This model takes seriously the pattern of God's activity in the Bible, and in subsequent history, of working through earthly means--through individuals, communities, and institutions that are deeply flawed but nonetheless capable of accomplishing God's purposes. Christians must find a way to live in this world and at the same time do work that honors God and God's plan for us. In an era of increasing religious and cultural tensions, both internationally and domestically, the model that Stackhouse develops discourages the "all or nothing" attitudes that afflict so much much of contemporary Christianity. Instead, he offers a fresh, and refreshingly nuanced, take on the question of what it means to be a Christian in the world today.

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"If you are satisfied neither with the program of a whole-scale transformation of the world nor with the project of building alternative enclaves in the world, this is the book for you. With compelling arguments, clear prose, and much erudition John Stackhouse points to a third and better way of following Christ in the real world. A must-read for those who are concerned with the role of faith in contemporary societies." --Miroslav Volf, Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology, Yale University Divinity School

"John Stackhouse addresses the big ideas about God and human beings and the world, but he does it not only with careful attention to the nuances and scholarly details, but with a focus on the practical challenges of living 'for Jesus Christ, today.' This is a wonderful gift to all of us who care deeply about thoughtful discipleship." --Richard J. Mouw, President and Professor of Philosophy, Fuller Theological Seminary

"John Stackhouse brings realism and theological integrity to evangelical social ethics. Making the Best of It combines prophetic criticism with an eye for real opportunities to live God's mission in today's world. Reflection on four great Christian thinkers of the past century provides a breadth of vision from which Stackhouse draws principles that make sense of today's opportunities. The result is global and local, timeless and contemporary, faithful and effective." --Robin W. Lovin, Cary Maguire University Professor of Ethics, Southern Methodist University

"This is an evangelical guide for the perplexed coming from a first-rate theological intelligence. It is coherent in its overall argument, brilliant and acute in its discriminations, simultaneously bracing and relaxing. With uncommon commonsense it shows how a Christian might engage with the shifting complexities of culture and politics, while faithfully interrogating the whole Bible rather than one's own favorite anthology of quotations." --David Martin, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, London School of Economics

About the Author

John G. Stackhouse, Jr. is Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology, Regent College. He is the author of Can God Be Trusted: Faith and the Challenge of Evil (OUP 1998), Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (OUP 2002) Church: An Insider's Look at How We Do It, and Finally Feminist: A Pragmatic Christian Understanding of Gender. He lives in Vancouver, BC. Please visit www.johnstackhouse.com for more about the author.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book! Dec 9 2009
Format:Hardcover
This is a great read for anyone who is interested in the question of what it means to think and act Christianly in the cultural context in which they find themselves. There are at least three important benefits to be derived from reading this book: 1) You will learn a good deal about three flat-out interesting Christians--Reinhold Niebuhr, C.S. Lewis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer--and how they understood and practiced following Christ in their very different contexts; 2) You will get a compelling portrayal of the scope and contours of the Biblical story and how human culture contributes to and detracts from God's intentions for is world; and 3) You will receive an extremely cogent and compelling articulation of Christian discipleship that combines an appreciation of the complexity of the historical and cultural contexts in which Christians are located with the conviction that the way of Jesus really does represent the most God-honouring way to be a human being in any and all cultures.

Well worth the read!
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  7 reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read on Christian mission and ethics! Dec 22 2009
By Michael W. Kruse - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
How should the church relate to society? Two models seem to predominate. One is accommodation. Some churches seem either to completely withdraw from society or be so accommodated to culture that they have little influence. The other model is full scale transformation of society according to some perceived biblical imperative ... taking expression in everything from the Religious Right to Christian Progressivism to liberation theology.

Stackhouse offers us a brilliantly articulated alternative he calls Christian Realism although it is nuanced some from what has passed as Christian Realism in the past. Stackhouse walks us through the story of God's mission in the world, identifying four commandments. Two are creation mandates. There is the cultural mandate to make the best world we can ("make the best of it") and the mandate of the great commandments to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. There are also the redemption mandates. We are given a "New Commandment" to love one another as Christ has loved as ... thus giving witness to the world of God's love and vision of Kingdom community ... and the Great Commission to seek out others and bring them into community. The overarching principle is the pursuit of the greatest shalom possible in the world (in all the richness the term "shalom" conveys.)

But here lies the problem. We can never fully achieve shalom this side of the consummation of the Kingdom of God. Sin is with us until then. Furthermore, due to our sin and finite existence, there is considerable doubt that we ... individually or corporately ... can fully grasp what pursing shalom truly entails in our context. Ambiguity and paradox are ever present companions. It creates a powerful tension. Unfortunately, we all too often try to escape the tension through accommodation or through idealistic transformational crusades. (Some offer Anabaptism as an alternative but that tradition also fails ... as Stackhouse shows ... to successfully address the paradox. There is recurring respectful dialog with Yoder in the book.) So how to respond?

Stackhouse begins the book looking back. The first half of the book revisits H. Richard Neibuhr's "Christ and Culture" and then explores the Christian Realism of C. S. Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Unfortunately, many are ready to tune him out here ... especially emerging church folks ... , believing that John Howard Yoder has thoroughly discredited Niebuhr. Stackhouse is not calling for a revival of Niebuhr's work but also takes issue with how Yoder has critique of Niebuhr. Furthermore, Stackhouse notes that all these Christian Realists were seriously lacking in a Trinitarian perspective, the work of the Spirit, and the role of worshiping communities in transforming the world. The first half of the book is more about identifying themes from the past to inform us in our exploration of the issues.

The second half of the book is where Stackhouse articulates his view of Christian Realism and it is largely disconnected from the first half in any direct sense. The two halves could be read as separate books but together they give a completeness that is needed. I've already mentioned the four commandments. Stackhouse also draws on the idea of Scripture, tradition, reason and experience working together... through the guidance of the Spirit ... to lead us as we pursue shalom. I particularly like how he roots his ethics in the narrative of Scripture and God's mission in the world.

This is an exceptional book! It is easily one of the most important books I've read on Christian mission and ethics. It articulates many conclusions I've come to on my own, clarifies so many other issues that I've struggled with, and presents it all in a cogent engaging style. I can't recommend the book highly enough.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Great Book! Dec 9 2009
By Ryan Dueck - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is a great read for anyone who is interested in the question of what it means to think and act Christianly in the cultural context in which they find themselves. There are at least three important benefits to be derived from reading this book: 1) You will learn a good deal about three flat-out interesting Christians--Reinhold Niebuhr, C.S. Lewis, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer--and how they understood and practiced following Christ in their very different contexts; 2) You will get a compelling portrayal of the scope and contours of the Biblical story and how human culture contributes to and detracts from God's intentions for is world; and 3) You will receive an extremely cogent and compelling articulation of Christian discipleship that combines an appreciation of the complexity of the historical and cultural contexts in which Christians are located with the conviction that the way of Jesus really does represent the most God-honouring way to be a human being in any and all cultures.

Well worth the read!
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars First half of the book is boring. 2nd half is very interesting. July 12 2012
By Daniel Lowe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Pretty interesting book. Really deals with ethics and provides a framework for ethics in the real world. He argues that real world situations don't necessarily have the perfect ethical answer.
His theological framework is this:

1) Creation mandate - was never revoked. Still continues
2) The greatest commandment - Love God and Love others.

Other commandments are all subordinate to these commandments and should be read within the context of these commands. For example, the great commission exists because if we make disciples, we're loving them by introducing them to God, and we're loving God by getting more people to worship him. He concludes that because of this framework, it's okay that we do not know the consequences of every action that we do. Sure, if we go to war there might be some unintended or unforeseen consequences. But because we're seeking to fulfill these commandments above, overall good is being done.

He then applies a lot of specific issues to this theological framework. For example, should we go to war? Stackhouse argues that if it is a just war, we should go to war while acknowledging that peace is the ultimate answer. It might not be the answer right now in this real world situation that is corrupted by sin, but in the future, peace will be the answer. So we go to war, knowing that it's not completely right, but God is okay with that. On top of that, there could be another group of people that believe in pacifism. God might be telling them to protest the war. So God's will is captured in that 1) we went to war but 2) there are people protesting the war. In that tension is where God is really at.

He deals with a lot of the stuff that the emerging church people have been trying to address but he doesn't talk about the emerging church movement or anything.

The first half of the book is pretty boring though, where he talks about the history of this type of ethic, the Niebuhrs, Bonhoffer, CS Lewis and how those people approached it. His theological framework is also not very encompassing. It doesn't address every aspect of the bible and it doesn't seem very well integrated. He seems to elevate the creation mandate to the same level as the greatest commandment without much reasoning behind that. It's also not very gospel integrated. NT Wright's theological framework is much more Christ and gospel centered and shows how the two commandments really relate to each other and are necessary for each other. But Stackhouse didn't bring those aspects of the gospel in. It seems like there are just two separate commandments.

Another issue with the book is, who is he writing this book to? Is it a scholarly work? Or is it made for laypeople? It seems like a cross between both due to the fact that there are a lot of unnecessary illustrations if it's for scholars. He also doesn't need to summarize Neibuhrs, Lewis and Bonhoffer in such depth. Yet if it's written for laypeople, they'd get lost in the background and want him to get to his point sooner.

Overall, some of his points are extremely interesting dealing with realism and operating as a Christian in the real world. If you get the book, skip the first half and read the ones where he talks about his own opinion and his theological framework.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Nuanced, Reasonable Take on Christianity's Relation to Culture Oct. 1 2011
By Ronald C. Payne - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This is a book about how Christianity ought to relate to culture. Stackhouse does a good job of outlining and describing Richard Niebuhr's typology of various paradigms of relating to culture which I found fascinating. To state is quickly, there is the type of Christ against culture (think of Nazism or abortion), Christ of culture (think of "Christian America," or previously, Christian Romans of the 4th and 5th centuries), Christ above culture (think of Thomas Aquinas both affirming that Christ is both in a separate from culture), Christ transforming culture (Moral Majority, Prohibition, etc.), and lastly Christ in paradox with culture which is the view Stackhouse defends and also the view that is the most complex. I definitely see the merits of Stackhouse's position even if I am somewhat inclined towards the 'Christ above culture' option.

In the next section, Stackhouse describes three influential Christian men, C.S. Lewis, Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. For me, this was the most interesting part of the book as I did not know too much about the later two figures. Bonhoeffer especially struck a cord with me in that he had a fierce spirit but recognized the intellectual difficulties with relating Christianity to culture that the other two didn't address as well.

Part 3 was all Stackhouse and this part got tiresome to read after a while. I generally liked the author's thinking and agreed with him over and against his opponents but I generally found his conclusions to be uninspiring. Just on the mechanics of the reading, I think the author repeated himself far too much and provided obvious, and unnecessary qualifications to his statements. For example, the word "shalom" is used so many times and always in italics to let you know the author is saying something special, that I grew increasingly annoyed. Yes, Christians are suppose to pursue the peace of God, goodness and all that but saying it over and over again gets grating. He also spent a lot of time qualifying his remarks which had the effect of making his statements more reasonable, which is a good thing, but also ensuring that he isn't really saying all that much. Nothing was bold, nothing surprised. It was all just very reasonable. Vanilla-like. This criticism sounds harsh, I know, so I'll speak next about what I did enjoy about this book.

I did like the author's nuanced approach to Scripture. He had a refreshingly non-dogmatic view about taking the NT in its context with the knowledge that we live in a different context with all the consequent ambiguities. Thus, while it might sound like the author's reasonableness is a liability when it comes to inspiring a person, it is an asset when it comes to intellectually defending to oneself Christianity's general rationality. For this I thank Stackhouse.

Overall, this book was mixed. It definitely wasn't bad but wasn't great either. It has strong and weak points.
4.0 out of 5 stars The second half of this book is what carries it Sept. 24 2012
By D. Holmes - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Stackhouse, one of the most creative thinkers in current evangelicalism, is perhaps best described as "pragmatic". His pragmatism is the overarching theme in this book, centering around the concept of creating the maximum amount of "shalom". He rejects the concepts of asceticism or complete disengagement from culture (while conceding that in some overtly anti-Christian cultures, such as perhaps modern North Korea or maybe even the Roman Empire in biblical times, such disengagement would actually be preferrable). He also explores how Christians should interpret Jesus's Sermon on the Mount and comes to a less literalistic conclusion than other scholars - naturally, of course, providing examples.

As other reviewers have mentioned, the first half of the book is devoted to exploring the views of Niebuhr, Yoder, Lewis, and Bonhoeffer (and more specifically, the practical applications of these views). As a lay reader, I actually ended up reading the second half of the book first, wanting to get directly to the points Stackhouse wanted to make - I reluctantly have to agree with other reviewers who have noted that the first half is comparatively not all that illuminating and perhaps even boring, though it is well worth reading through at some point. Stackhouse's practical applications make this book well worth the (very reasonable) price tag for the thinking Christian wanting to know how to engage with the world and, well, make the best of it.
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