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Life of Pi & The Problem of Evangelism Book(s)

Yann Martel – the author of the award-winning Life Of Pi – was recently giving a talk on his latest book, The High Mountains of Portugal, when he was asked what his current project was on. In clear and direct wording he said that he was going to take a break because he had four little Russian novels running around his house to take care of.

This kind of statement is lost on contemporary Christian culture. If one scans the local Christian bookstore, one gets the impression that “we” only read novels about amish love affairs or books written by senior pastors, meant to serve as extremely accessible clarion calls to the wider church about the wider culture (emphasis on the “wide”).

We either want to get lost or get told what to do.

What Martel meant by his aside was simple but brilliant: writing books and raising children are similar in that they both require the work of creativity, research, patience, and attention. Personally, this doesn’t make sense to my American mind, i.e. if it works well for someone, we need to package it, market it, and make its appeal to the broadest audience imaginable. I mean, come on, why would one of the greatest Canadian authors stop writing books in order to raise his children?

The “Why” for this little rant:

It could be that I recently skimmed through a book that is designed to activate believers into the work of evangelism [1]. Upon my “skimming” there were many chapters on familiar territory: love-motivation, anecdotal moments of revelatory compassion, as well as an entire chapter devoted to making a clear statement on the existence of hell as a co-motivator for witnessing – of which there is no actual “clear” statement made beyond the typical “Hell is in the Bible; you must believe the Bible is the Word of God; therefore, Hell is the irrefutable piece of your gospel-witness because you must not deny the infallibility of the Scriptures.”

What is even funnier is that not once does the author argue any point from scripture except from his own assumptions we are supposed to receive from his mind.

Book Aside, #1: this is a kind of argument meant to be seen as objective, or “coming from nowhere other than the truth,” which is rubbish. He has a perspective; he assumes you know what he is talking about; you don’t know what he is talking about; you nod and turn the page wondering why he thinks it necessary to endlessly quote Kevin DeYoung as his go-to scholar. His views do not come nowhere, only God’s perspective is from “nowhere,” thus objective in the only true sense. Even history as we know it is art, curated to a perspective that is helpful. 

The author mistakes christian hope as going to heaven when we die instead of the Resurrection, and if that isn’t bad enough, spends the majority of the book making the case that eternity is entirely non-temporal. Perhaps this pastor should read the scriptures again, even if he reads the entire Book once a year, because “eternity” is revealed to be God invading human history. (This is not meant to be a slam, but God doesn’t invade the world in Jesus – as if He never was in the world to begin with – He invades human history and asserts himself as the Lord of said history, given its proper interpretation and understanding, which is part of what the Bible is.) In other words, God cares about biological entities. We are embodied beings, as Charles Taylor says. And if there is no hope within human history, there is no hope in Jesus.

This is not to say that I believe we should just try to make the world more “Just” – whatever that means – instead of more “Saved.” I simply take the Stanley Hauerwas position that we should first make the world the World. We should make it more “Just” as well, but in the process make known our metaphysical commitments.

In lock step with his message, the author promotes a Gospel that can only produce the very kinds of christians he doesn’t want to create: Christian-atheists, i.e. believe in a transcendent Being, but know that they don’t have to live like it, with the only exception being for the sake of winning souls to Christ. In the words of N.T. Wright, God wants to save Wholes, not Souls [2].

Is there a gospel to be found?

And then I finally find the chapter that communicates the message of the Gospel. It is one of the last chapters, only a few pages, and essentially boils down the Gospel to four points: 1. God loves you, 2. You are a filthy sinner in need of forgiveness, 3. Hooray, Jesus purchased your forgiveness on the cross, and 4. You can believe in Jesus’ death today and find new life (forgiveness) right now.

The only problem with this form of “message” is that it is wrong, reductively perverse, rooted in atonement theory, and completely unintelligible to the apostolic fathers in the book of Acts. What is deceptive is that all of these points are true (with the only exception being the “purchasing” element to the cross) but they are not the Gospel.

The Gospel is the good news that Jesus is Lord.

Book Aside, #2: I think the greatest indictment to this piece of non-fiction that I can bring is the fact that a book on Christian outreach is incredibly practical and boring. The author justifies his style as completely available to the “normal” christian, thus destroying the notion that “normal” in the christian sense mean “extraordinary,” or what is also called, “human.”  

What Yann Martel [3] seems to get, as an agnostic, is that the work and the life are inseparable. The same magic that went into his books go into his children, and they produce the same effect. In the same way, the authors of supposed “books to help you share your faith” ought to do more than simply give people a vision for eternity that only exists after they die. Otherwise, what good are we?

I’m sick of others saying they are going into a profession to “make a difference for the gospel,” when in fact it’s just a spiritual justification for entering into a world they enter because they simply enjoy it. Perhaps if we ditch the need to be vocationally impressive to our evangelical peers we might actually start enjoying our work for its own sake, and then demonstrate how God enjoys things for their own sake because, guess what?

God enjoys us.

Jon

[1] Organic Out Reach for Ordinary People, Kevin Harney

[2] Surprised By Hope, N.T. Wright

[3] The Man-Booker award winner modeled the structure of his latest book, The High Mountains of Portugal, after the four gospels.

Comments

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2 Comments

  1. Enjoying your thoughts. Thanks for sharing.

    The gospel is the news that there is a new sherrif in town. One with legitimacy and goodness.

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