Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World Paperback – Oct 1 2011
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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 at 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, B.C.
Top Customer Reviews
Well worth the read!
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
Well worth the read!
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.
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.
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.