Book review: Unconditional?

I just finished reading Brian Zahnd’s new book, Unconditional?: The call of Jesus to radical forgiveness. Overall, it’s pretty awesome. If I were to come up with a “Top Ten” list of Christian books, this would definitely be included.

The topic of forgiveness is one that I’ve thought about a lot over the last 30 or so years; my fascination, if you will, with forgiveness began when I realized that “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us” actually puts our forgiving others first. It’s not, “because we’ve been forgiven, we’ll try to forgive others.” Shocking, I know. So, when I heard this book was coming out, I was quite excited (as I was when I saw it on the New Releases shelf at the local Borders; yes, I actually bought it from a brick-and-mortar store, although I did have a coupon…).

Zahnd lays out his thesis on page 2:

If we enter the Christian life to find forgiveness, we must continue in the faith to become forgiving people, because to be an authentic follower of Christ we must embrace the centrality of forgiveness.

Grace?

There are those who may question how this mandate to forgive correlates to grace; Zahnd does a pretty good job of doing that. Within a few pages he hits this question head-on, explaining that (in my words) forgiveness is grace in action. The work of Christ on the cross was one of grace and forgiveness, and we are called to take up our cross daily and do the same thing:

But Christians are not just recipients of forgiving grace; we are also called to be those who extend the grace of forgiveness to others.

Overall, I thought he kept his discussion within the realm of grace, although I know some will feel that he steps over into works. But, if we accuse Zahnd of crossing over into works, I think we’d have to accuse Paul of the same thing. Essentially, Zahnd is saying, “Have the same mindset of Jesus…” (Phil 2:5). Living a life of grace is living a life of forgiveness; if we fail to extend grace to others, it shows we simply don’t believe in grace.

Zahnd explains quite well how unforgiveness is a trap which keeps people in bondage, and prevents them from experiencing grace and their own forgiveness. If we want to truly be free, we must decide to forgive those who have wronged us.

Ken Blue and I deal with this topic ourselves in The Gospel Uncensored:

Unforgiveness places us in a prison of our own making. When we fail to forgive, we do not just withhold forgiveness from others; we prevent ourselves from experiencing forgiveness ourselves.

Prose and cons

(No, I didn’t misspell “pros.”)

Unconditional? is a fairly short (220 pages), very easy to read book. In it, Zahnd discusses the concept of forgiveness in several different contexts, such as how forgiveness impacts justice and the way of forgiveness being the way through the Narrow Gate. He will perhaps shock some with his idea that true forgiveness does not necessarily forget. Overall, he brings out many good points and challenges many American attitudes, not that they are necessarily limited to Americans.

Throughout the book I saw many hints of NT Wright, which is not a bad thing. But, I often thought I was reading a rewrite of some of Wright’s thoughts from works like Evil and the Justice of God and Simply Christian (again, not a bad thing, I just noticed it). For those who haven’t read Wright, Unconditional? will present some new thoughts.

I was impressed that while he addresses politics and world affairs, he doesn’t go off topic with discussions of pacifism and the like, which seem to be in vogue these days. Some, of course, will wish that he had gone further in these directions—but I think he does well to raise issues while staying on course.

I had a few complaints about the book, though not with the message. For one, in my opinion he tended to beat his examples to death and seemed to repeat himself unnecessarily. Just when you thought he had moved on, he’d resurrect an analogy.  In a sermon context, repetition is good and necessary; in a book, it’s not. However, I realize that some will love this about the book.

And, I thought the last couple of chapters were tangential at best, perhaps an attempt to extend the book past 200 pages. What he had to say wasn’t bad, I just thought he drifted too far off topic. Again, others will, no doubt, disagree with me.

My main disappointment with the book was that he didn’t deal more in depth with the issue I mentioned earlier, that our own forgiveness seems tied to our choice to forgive others. While he touches on the topic, he doesn’t really give it the attention I would have liked to have seen.

I highly recommend this book

In spite of the few issues I had, I would still list this in my current Top Ten list of books. Many, many people are held captive by their own unforgiveness of others, and I think this is one of the major barriers keeping people from experiencing their own grace and forgiveness. I hope this book does well, and finds its way into the hands of those who need it.

Forgiveness is healing; as Zahnd says, it changes everything.

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