A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd (Review)

For me, as for many Christians in America, it has often been difficult to separate our commitments to Jesus and our patriotism as Americans.  I remember singing songs to the greatness of America at church around national holidays.  More recently, I remember being at a Christian conference that recognized a national holiday with a powerpoint presentation that seemed to praise American warplanes.

Brian Zahnd seems to have a similar history.  In his book A Farewell to Mars, he tells much of his story.  Once upon a time he was the patriotic pastor, preaching nationalistic sermons, praying war prayers and basically seeing part of his job as a Christian pastor to call for God’s blessing to the American military machine.  Over time he came to see the idolatry in this and moved to a nonviolent position.

When I first noticed this book, I expected it to be the story of how a pastor moved from seeing Jesus as sanctioning American wars to sanctioning nonviolence along with a good bit of argument that Jesus teaches nonviolence.  There is a lot of the former, but it was the latter that was pleasantly surprising.  Zahnd does not tread the usual ground that people do when arguing for or against nonviolence.  His book is not about proving, from the sermon on the mount and elsewhere, that Jesus’ followers ought to be nonviolent.  Instead he paints a picture of who Jesus Christ is and was and reasons from that into nonviolence.

This makes the book both readable and fresh.  If you’re new to the whole idea of a nonviolent Jesus, this book opens the door for you.  And if you’ve read books on this subject before, this book is unique enough to deserve a reading.  At the same time, if you have the usual questions about nonviolence, Zahnd’s book does not give answers.  For example, he makes the claim that God never commands the killing of anyone, drawing a line from Abraham to Jesus.  What about all the stories in the Bible where God does appear to command such killing?  Zahnd does not go there.  Also, many people bring up how the picture of Jesus in Revelation fits in, will Jesus leave behind nonviolence to take on the war-like qualities of Mars at the second coming?  Again, Zahnd does not go there.

So do not read this book expecting a full-proof argument for nonviolence that answers all questions.  Read it more as a testimony of how one pastor changed his thinking.  Zahnd is one of many who is moving towards such conclusions, coming out of an evangelical, God bless American and her wars, background.  It’d be interesting to know why so many of us (I suppose I’d fit in this group too) are making this change.  Are we just doing a better job studying the Bible?  Something to do with the end of Christendom?  Some other sociological reason?  Questions for another day, I guess.  All in all, a great book to read!

How (Not) To Be Secular by James K.A. Smith (Review)

A few years ago I worked my way through Charles Taylor’s magnificent A Secular Age.  That book was one of the most challenging and rewarding books I’ve ever read.  It is definitely in my top five of all time, that despite me knowing I need to re-read it sometime to fully get what Taylor is saying.  The basic question Taylor asked is why it was so easy to believe in God in 1500 and so difficult in the year 2000.  What has changed?

The common secularization thesis is that as people learned science and became modern they left behind religion.  Taylor’s book shows that this substraction story is simply not how it happened.  He seeks to tell a different story.

It is a fascinating book and certainly changes the way you look at our world once you read it.  That said, I found myself wishing there was some sort of summary book out there.  First, such a short book would help those of us crazy enough to read Taylor’s tome.  Second, it would be a valuable resource for pastors and others who don’t have the desire to plod through 800 pages of narrative philosophy.

James K.A. Smith has provided us with such a book, How (Not) to be Secular.  Smith has become one of my favorite writers recently and this book just adds to my admiration.  He distills Taylor’s great work.  This will be one of the books I will recommend most to my pastor friends, even my college students.

The only part I found odd, out of place even, was near the end.  Smith was talking about how Taylor argues that much modern Christian consciousness has removed the wrath of God, leaving only love.  Smith mentions Rob Bell in passing as an example of this.  It seemed like a cheap shot.  Bell’s musings on hell, punishment (or lackthereof) and universalism aside, there are real biblical questions about what the future judgment entails.  Taylor may be on to something, perhaps God’s wrath is more distasteful to Christians today then in other eras.  But maybe this distaste has driven Christians to a renewed study of the topic in scripture, just as Luther’s distaste for indulgences led to his study.  And there are much better people pursuing this study then Rob Bell, I think of the likes of John Stott who rejected the traditional eternal conscious torment view.  It seems a valid question to be decided in Biblical exegesis, regardless of how tasteful or distasteful we moderns find the idea.

That aside, the other 99.5% of the book is fantastic!  Highly, highly recommended.