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.


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.

Good News for Anxious Christians pt 4

The church, when it’s not seduced by consumerist spirituality, is in the business of cultivating ordinary Christians.

This is perhaps my favorite quote in the book I’ve been reviewing, Good News for Anxious Christians. This is not, however, the focus of contemporary evangelicalism. Who wants to be ordinary? “Come join us—be ordinary!” is not something you’re going to find on many (or any) church signs or websites.

In the remaining 1/2 of the book, Cary addresses cultural elements which have found their way into evangelicalism, such as emphasizing our motivations rather than our actions, separating “head” from “heart,” and especially consumerism. In adopting a marketing approach to spirituality—which is based on creating a need to fit in, or even be special—the church has lost any sense of true spirituality (becoming “ordinary” Christians).

The point of consumerism is to make you feel like you’re missing something, so you keep coming back. This requires that you stop thinking, and respond emotionally to the message. As Cary writes,

The new evangelical theology, like all forms of consumerist religion, really does need to keep you from thinking too much. It requires you to be afraid of engaging in critical thought, so that you’re easily manipulated and easily pressured into wanting to feel what everyone else feels.

Cary includes a chapter on why practical sermons are so boring (as we all know they are). The need to be practical and “relevant” shifts the focus from the Gospel (what Christ has done for us) to what we can do for ourselves (or for the church).

The last couple of chapters are perhaps the most important in the book, as he explains how this shift from a focus on external truth to one of internal experience is a step away from orthodox Christianity, and which will lead to a post-Christian future.

In closing, he tells us why the gospel is simply good for us, and why it should be preached as often as possible.

As I mentioned at the outset of this series, Good News for Anxious Christians is a great companion to my book The Gospel Uncensored, as it deals with many of the same attitudes, however from a different perspective. If church makes you feel anxious in the least, I highly recommend reading both of these (mind first, of course…).

Good News for Anxious Christians pt 3

The first 4 chapters of Anxious Christians deals with what Cary calls “the core of what is distinctive about the new evangelical theology.” When Cary refers to “new evangelical theology,” he is referring to an approach to spirituality and thinking which would have been unheard of a generation or 2 ago.  He describes it so:

This is essentially a set of interconnected techniques or ritual practices for making God real in your life, establishing a relationship with God, and so on—as if that kind of thing really depended on you. The techniques all have the characteristic that they turn you away from external things like the word of God, Christ in the flesh, and the life of the church, in order to seek God in your heart, your life, and your experience. Underneath a lot of talk about being personal with God, it’s a spirituality that actually leaves you alone with yourself [italics mine].

Chapter 2 follows the theme of chapter 1, dealing with why you don’t have to believe your intuitions are the Holy Spirit. He again makes the point that “…the Holy Spirit does work in our hearts, even though our hearts and all the voices in them are our own.” Intuition is a skilled way of seeing, that develops as God works in our lives.

The danger is that when we feel like we must credit God with our innermost thoughts and feelings, we actually are short-changing what God is doing in our lives. We are left with no sense of personal growth, because anything good has to be solely God, not our being changed into the likeness of Christ.

Moving on, Cary then deals in Chapter 3 with the concept of “letting God take control.” This, again, is a way of short-changing what God is doing in us, and actually stunts our personal growth. Growth in anything involves an increase in responsibility, which people abdicate under the guise of being “spiritual.” The result is stunted spiritual growth. We don’t have to “give God control;” God is in control, and we must learn to accept this, and what God is doing in us, by faith.

Finally, in the 4th and last chapter in this section, Cary addresses the concept of “finding God’s will,” a major theme among evangelical Christians, especially those looking for a mate. He dispels the notion that there is such a thing as “the one” or that God really cares whether you have oatmeal or toast for breakfast. A part of maturing is making decisions.

God has already given us everything we need to live godly lives (2 Peter 1:3), and we need to believe that by faith. That doesn’t mean that we don’t ask God for wisdom, but that we trust that he gives it to us. Citing Hebrews 5:14, Cary writes, “For we already know the Lord’s will for our lives: he wants us to learn how to discern good from bad, including how to make good investments for his kingdom.

The new evangelical theology actually works against any kind of spiritual maturity, conning us into believing that we need to ignore what God is actually doing in our lives, abdicating any kind of real maturity in favor of a vacuous spirituality.

Good News for Anxious Christians, pt 2

On the first page of the preface of his book, Phillip Cary writes:

Some folks may find it odd when I say Christians need the gospel, but this is something I firmly believe. … It’s hearing the gospel of Christ and receiving him by faith, over and over again, that makes the real transformation in our lives. We become new people in Christ by faith alone, not by our good works or efforts or even our attempts to let God work in our lives.

This thought echoes my own, that we need to be constantly re-evangelizing each other, as well as that of Martin Luther, who wrote:

So this doctrine can never be taught, urged, and repeated enough. If this doctrine is lost, then is also the whole knowledge of the truth, life and salvation lost. If this doctrine flourishes, then all good things flourish.

Crediting Luther, Cary then makes what to some would be a rather shocking statement, “…the good news of the gospel is that God has already decided to do something about our lives—whether we let him or not…

Cary’s point in this book is that the practical things we try to do to become more transformed don’t accomplish what we think they will, and actually damage our spirituality, making us anxious Christians.

Hearing God’s voice in our hearts

The first thing Cary tackles is the notion that we need to hear God’s voice in our heart, and that if we don’t, there’s something wrong with us. He maintains, in fact,  the voices in our heart are our own—influenced by God, perhaps, but still, they our simply our own voices—and there’s nothing wrong with that. If we start understanding that our own inner voice is good (although not perfect) and it’s okay to listen to ourselves, we will function more normally, maturely, and truly spiritually.

This is something Ken and I mention in our own book, concerning people’s religious addiction, noting that those who claim to hear God’s voice the most are often the people with the most messed-up lives.

While Cary doesn’t mention this, the whole concept of hearing God’s voice in our heart is not unlike that claimed by Mormons, and sometimes even serial killers. There is simply no objective way to determine the validity of this inner voice—unless we admit it is our own. We have already been given revelation in the person of Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2) and the scriptures; what more do we want?

For those people who realize that the only voices they hear are their own, this can obviously cause anxiety, and sometimes “playing along” with the group in order to seem “normal.”

Bottom line

Cary is not saying that we are “on our own,” or that the Holy Spirit doesn’t speak to us or through us. What he is saying is that as truth comes into us, as the Holy Spirit works in us and we become transformed, our own inner voices will be more conformed as well. Our inner voice will sound more and more like the voice of God—presuming we are having the good news preached to us and we are paying attention to the revelation we have in the Scriptures.

This makes church essential—we can’t just listen to our inner voice, we have to hear the Scriptures preached and listen to each other, for “faith comes by hearing,” not by looking inward where we can imagine any of our thoughts are those of God. We truly need to be evangelizing each other, over and over again.