So a few weeks ago, when I got an e-mail asking me to take part in another of these blog tours, I thought nothing of it. The book was called Different Eyes: The Art of Living Beautifully and was, apparently, about tackling tricky ethical issues from a Christian perspective. Sure, send the book. I'm in.
But when it arrived, the cover gave me pause. "By Steve Chalke + Alan Mann." Why did I know those names? Then it hit me: these are the guys who wrote The Lost Message of Jesus: A Heterodox Re-framing of the Christian Faith. (That's not really the sub-title, but it should have been). Apparently the fires of pyro-marketing are burning out of control and creating a lot of smoke. I mean, I don't expect Zondervan to be aware that I just co-wrote a minor little volume with Ted Kluck, or even that this blog is frequently about the business of refuting McLaren, Bell, et al. But I would expect them to keep their e-mail lists straight and know that bloggers who were geeked to promote Don't Stop Believing would be less than excited about Steve Chalke's latest work.
But, hey. They sent me the book so I read it, and my review follows:
First of all, the book was all over the place, subject-wise. Sure, it was all under the broad umbrella of ethics, but there was no progression, no real thread running through it. It seemed like a collection of essays or blog entries strung together. Maybe it was. If there was a single theme, it would be "playing fast and loose with the faith once for all handed down to the saints." Against a "rulebook" approach to Christianity, Chalke and Mann advocate a Christianity that is more like "jazz improvisation." Perhaps a more accurate description would be that, instead of creeds and confessions, they advocate jam sessions. This particular session is "Riffs on ethics." Sadly, their instruments are way out of tune.
It is noteworthy that the first page (which is really just 2/3 of a page of text) already contains two false statements about the Bible, most likely just stemming from a fading knowledge of the Bible's original languages. Chalke tells us that the Hebrew word El "translates into English, 'God of your fathers.'" Ummm, nope. And BDB or Koehler Baumgartner will confirm that. He then tells us that, when Moses asked what God's name was, God replied with the Hebrew word "Yahweh," which means "I am." Nope again. God said to Moses, "I am that I am" (אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה), not "Yahweh" (יְהוָה). You don't need to know Hebrew to see the difference.
Now, the Name Yahweh probably does come from the root "to be," but to equivocate these terms is misleading. Am I nitpicking here? No, I'm making a point. From page 1, Chalke and Mann present Holy Scripture as they wish it was, filling in the backgrounds and motivations at their own whims, in order to make Scripture agree with their own politics and ethics. We all have a tendency toward doing this, but most people don't have the capacity to do it on this level.
So this thing about God telling Moses "I am" (which God did say, in Exodus 3:14) becomes Chalke's foundation for what he will do in the rest of the book. Apparently, God chose this label because he "wanted to surprise us." "The name Yahweh is an invitation to discover, an enticement to an adventure of slow revelation." (p. 14)
Of course, this is true. The whole Old Testament is a slow unveiling of who God is, revealed at many times and in various ways. But in these last days, God has been revealed to us through His Son. Ignoring that distinction has become a common tactic in the past 100 years. I call it the Wineskin Fallacy. Show that Jesus was a continuing revelation of who God is, maybe quote His teaching about new wine needing new wineskins, then announce that you're bringing some more of the new wine, which requires more new wineskins. The problem with this, of course, is that Jesus is the finest wine available. There is no newer, better teacher, philosophy, or set of ethics to come after him. You can't improve on that Wine, and you can't apply the slow revelation of God in the Old Testament to the Church Age without recognizing the discontinuity.
Chalke (+ Mann, who gets a little plus sign and a smaller font) hang their suvery of Christian ethics on this re-casting of the metannarative. They appeal to "context" frequently and, when that doesn't get them the desired results, they zoom out further and claim that the “story” of Scripture is what backs their position. Context and metanarrative are essential to understanding Scripture, but Chalke so ignores context and twists the metanarrative that God's Law becomes an extra little bonus gift given to people whom he's already (somehow) redeemed. If you know anything about the distinction between Law and Gospel, you can see how this would make for one janky set of "biblical ethics."
For example, Chalke (+ Mann) writes "It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that biblical ethics are set in stone, when in fact, they are set within a story." (p. 18) Again, story is essential, but too often this is just an excuse to use "narrative theology" as a pair of pliers to yank out any of the teeth I don't like from God's Word. For a proper laying out of the Bible's meta-narrative and how it informs our reading of Scripture, see Dr. Michael Wittmer's excellent book, Heaven Is a Place On Earth (Zondervan, 2004).
The authors do acknowledge that our story is The Story, which at first is a bit refreshing. They even hint at the possibility of evangelization, but of course, this is accomplished by letting our ethics shine, and that's it (rather than letting our good works adorn the Gospel or Jesus Christ--more on this distinction later).
In addition to some faulty biblical data, Chalke really likes to employ his favorite logical fallacies: namely the Fallacy of Extension and False Disjunction (neither of which I made up, unlike the Wineskin Fallacy). The Extension Fallacy is when you take your opponent's argument to the furthest absurd extreme possible, and then break it off. (For examples of this, turn on right wing talk radio for five minutes). Along these lines, Chalke continually returns to the canonized "Christian Ethics 101" scenarios to show how silly God's Laws are if taken seriously. To read this book, one would think that Mr. Chalke lives in a world where murderers are continually asking him for the location of their next victim, where he daily has to chose between rescuing a child from a burning building and collaring fleeing criminals, and where he is expected by society to lug his elderly relatives up into the mountains to die on their eightieth birthdays. Basing rules on exceptions doesn't work, but of course Chalke (+ Mann) doesn't want any hard and fast rules, but rather ethics "set within a story."
Along the same fallacious lines, Chalke tells stories of people who are morally opposed to zippers and people who live on top of poles. Scenarios starring Monty Python, Mr. Bean, and the cast of The West Wing are presented in detail, highlighting ridiculous extremes in ethical thought, and then Chalke's view--which looks moderate and reasonable by comparison--is laid down as the only other alternative.
Another favorite tactic of Chalke's is to simply redefine everything. He has no problem, without logical, textual, or linguistic evidence, decarling that holiness is not so much about separateness as it is about "distinctive presence" (wha-?) This has become commonplace in Kinda Christianity; it's the most arrogant form of false humility that would declare Augustine (and the balance of the historic, orthodox Christian Church) completely off-base for having called the Lord's Supper a sacrament and having tied it to bread and wine shared regularly by local bodies of believers. But then again, that's a fairly minor assertion for two authors who have already labeled penal substitutionary atonement "cosmic child abuse."
When he does occasionally back up his raw assertions, it's almost always with quotes from (usually rather dubious) theologians. An aside: William Willimon (UMC bishop and rather solid theologian) is quoted at least once per page. I mean, it's distracting how often Chalke quotes Willimon. If I were Willimon, I'd demand half the royalties from this book. Scratch that; I'd demand that they re-issue the book with my name changed to "Alan Smithee."
As to the ethics themselves, the book very briefly lays out three possible models, landing on "virtue ethics." He may as well have called his system "virtual ethics." In fact, for Chalke, the term "ethics" is synonymous with "being human" and "[is] essentially about everyday life--our passions and perceptions--and the slow cultivation of good habits and moral skills." (p. 65). Guess what, Steve? Oprah, Dr. Phil, and Joel Osteen can give me that. Why do I need Jesus?
Again, Chalke--having no vicarious payment for his law-breaking (ya know, "cosmic child abuse," and all that) just goes the old liberal route of dumbing down and sweetening up the Law. This statement sums up his confusion:
"...when Jesus announced, 'If any of you want to be my followers...you must take up your cross each day and follow me' (Luke 9:23 CEV) was he really implying that each of his hearers should aim to follow an identical pathway to his through life? Of course not. What he was doing was suggesting that they adopt the same habits and attitudes -- those of service and sacrifice -- that he demonstrated on a daily basis, because in doing so, they would have the tools to do the right thing in any given situation." (pp. 147-148)
Yes, it's all about "good habits." Law, anyone? Anyone want to put on the crushing yoke of the Pharisees? No?? But it's the way to living beautifully! Look, I even painted flowers on the yoke! You might be thinking, "But this is an ethics book; of course it will deal primarily with imperatives, rather than with the Gospel." Granted, but for Christians, the imperatives must always grow out of the indicative of what God did for us in Christ, as they always do in the New Testament epistles.
When he started pontificating on the Sermon on the Mount, I almost quit, fearing I didn't have the stomach and the strength to grit my teeth through it. But I endured. Of course, the Sermon on the Mount is the best example of Jesus showing us what it looks like to fulfill the Law. It's as if He's saying, "You want to earn righteousness through the Law? I'll give you Lawⁿ! You've heard it said, no adultery? Check this out: no lusting!" But Chalke sees the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus offering up some tips for living, and another few inches of the unfolding story. He so thoroughly mangles the whole point, that the reader leaves with the impression that "Be perfect even as your heavenly father is perfect" is an attainable goal in the flesh (p. 75), rather than an uppercut and a shove toward the foot of the cross.
The bottom line is this: you can't tell the story when you don't know the story.When you miss the fact that the whole Bible—Old Testament and New—is about Jesus (and not just an "unfolding story about Yahweh's interaction with Israel"), you wind up missing the point at every turn. The near-sacrifice of Isaac becomes just a springboard for some long-term re-education program about child sacrifice and how (contrary to popular belief) it’s actually bad(Who knew?); and the parable of the foolish builder becomes a warning against living our lives "insisting [on] obedience to every detail" of God's Law.
Not surprisingly, Chalke continually models the use of our own human criteria to determine whether God is actually "virtuous." And when God doesn't make the cut, we just re-imagine Scripture again and again until He does. Horrifying to most Christians, yes, but then again, if the substitutionary atonement is a tale of "cosmic child abuse," then acknowledging the fall would leave us dead in our sins. And we can't have that.
Scripture is clear that, for a believer, our sanctification is the work of God in us. The old self died with Christ, we were raised with Him a new creation, and the Holy Spirit now indwells us. That's how we have any hope of living ethically. That's where the power comes from. But where does Chalke find the power?
"It is one thing to know the commands--'Do not kill', 'Do not commit adultery'...but where do we get the strength from to overpower our baser instincts? Only a different story -- a different set of values, practices and relationships -- can empower us to live differently" (p. 25)WHAT? A "different set of values, practices, and relationships" empowers me to overcome the flesh and live a godly life? So a different law, law, and law? The saddest thing: it is a different story that empowers us to live godly lives, but Chalke never gets around to telling it. Because, ya know, it involves "cosmic child abuse."
I am not ashamed to tell that story, though. Jesus Christ, being God in the flesh (the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity), lived a perfect life, fulfilling the law (which was in fact written in stone). He did what we couldn't do--lived a perfect life, then he died on a cross, bearing God's wrath against our sin. On the third day, he rose from the grave, having conquered sin and death! By God's grace, through our belief, we are then declared perfectly righteous (with Christ's righteousness!) in God's sight. This also begins the process of sanctification, wherein our lives more and more reflect that perfect legal righteousness. Now, if that was the "story" on page one, we might have seen a worthwhile discussion of Christian ethics.
As it is, though, his book could have been marketed as the second in a series and been titled The Lost Message of the Bible: Law & Splenda. Remember, Chalke views the Law as something that God gave us to keep us happy, not to break us and drive us to the foot of the cross!
What I found endlessly frustrating is how Chalke kept flirting with the Gospel. He'd look like he was headed that way, then veer away at the last second. For example, the chapter called "Enlightened" started out promising, describing in a rather compelling way the problem of human autonomy. But, again, the answer was Law--sugar-coated Law, but Law nonetheless. Even when Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension are acknowledged as the center of history, it's only to back up the idea that Jesus is for us "an advanced course in moral formation, the key to living beautifully." (p.52-53)
According to Different Eyes, rather than raise us up, Christ came to lower the bar of the law so that we could make it over on our own, taking into account the situations and complications of our day, and cutting us a little slack. This is clear on page 70, when Chalke gives examples of goofy laws that remain on the books in the US and UK, despite being embarrassingly out of date. Is this how he views God's Law? What does he want to repeal (or re-invent)? The same old issues that theological liberals have been banging on for years. That pesky Bible just keeps getting in the way.
Different Eyes might be worth reading just to see what happens to Christianity (including its ethics) when the cross has been robbed of its power. Like Chalke, I oppose unyielding and unbiblical legalism. But the way from dead Phariseeism to a Living Christianity is not via dumbing down or re-imagining God's law--it's by accepting that we can never fulfill God's law, accepting the sacrifice of Christ in our stead, and being made into a new creation, sanctified in life and practice. But hey, if God's commandments aren't rules (?!), then we can't have broken them. If we're not lawbreakers, then we don't need the atonement.
[Another aside: while awkwardly scattered throughout, the point-counterpoint sections are interesting and might make fun conversation starters for small groups looking to introduce a little conflict to the mix...]
So, how does a book like this end? I was curious enough to read to the final page. The contextless block quotes get thicker and denser as the book sputters out, until you forget that you're not actually thumbing through Spencer Burke's scrapbook. Then you hit a case study about euthanasia, followed by the acknowledgments.
Then you read some Machen to get the taste out.