Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear:
Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2007.
Here we have an accessible theological text that every minister in placement should read. No, revise that! In these days of the oft-repeated refrains to do with lay leadership and ministry ‘agents’ [an extremely unusual and problematic term] Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear should be required reading. Our Synod is soon to meet and rather than debate report after report, I reckon we could better use the time by reading this book together and engage with the questions Bader-Saye sets at the end of every chapter. Of course, we will not do this – but, if we did, we would be a livelier, more vibrant, generous and courageous church! Maybe key boards and councils could use it as a study book for the year, acquire some necessary direction, and learn to deal with the much-diagnosed lack of trust so often found in the church.
The text itself belongs inside a very good series entitled ‘The Christian Practice of Everyday Life’. I like the look of its companion volumes. I have purchased a couple of others already: Eric Jacobsen, Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith and Elizabeth Newman, Untamed Hospitality: Welcoming God and Other Strangers. There others do with ‘good eating’ the technological society, reclaiming the body, the faithful use of medicine, living the Sabbath and wrestling with Jesus’ call to non-violence in an evil world.
I had never heard of Bader-Saye before but Following Jesus has attracted a significant cast of back-page supporters: Walter Brueggemann, Stanley Hauerwas, L. Gregory Jones and Sam Wells. This is a good company: they all spoke highly of both Bader-Saye and his book for its ‘courage’, ‘practical wisdom’, ‘timely and provocative nature’, and its ‘hopeful and hope-filled’ reading of the pervasive fear that can grip and contemporary cultures. I have to confess: I bought the book due to these endorsements. One week later I found myself drawing upon Bader-Saye’s reading of discipleship in a climate of fear to complete an article I was writing at the time on alienated neighbours and the Cronulla race riots – for Christ’s sake.
Bader-Saye is writing out of mainstream America. His point of departure for the case he makes about contemporary culture is not, as one might expect, the extremes of terror, 9/11 and violent upheaval. That plays a part but it is not his overriding concern. Bader-Saye is listening into the signals contemporary culture gives off. He has paid careful attention to the marketing ploys of a consumer society and how advertising, insurance and the media play upon our fears and anxieties. The first pregnancy of his wife alerted him to how fear begins with the prospect of child birth and will subsequently attend the parenting of children. He notes those television infotainment shows – like Today Tonight – which discover how yet another thing can damage us or kill us in the most random of manners and, in the process, build a sub-culture of fear and apprehension.
The church is not exempt. Its proclamation can often exploit fear – and indeed can sometimes market fear. Bader-Saye refers to the ‘shirt evangelism’ he has discovered in the United States where websites sell awesome ‘Fear God’ T-shirts. Some examples are cited: ‘He Ain’t Coming Back to Preach – Fear God!’, featuring a line-drawn image of a man on horseback brandishing a sword, ’It’s a Dreadful Thing to Fall into the Hands of the Living God: Repent or Perish’. The website boasts: ‘The Fear God line of shirts contains bold scriptural truths. You won’t be able to wear one of these shirts without telling someone about Jesus!’
Bader-Saye is not wanting to say that fear is a vice or an evil. There is, of course, a healthy or ‘right fear’. It can indeed be seen as having its origins in love [and the prospect of loss]. The biblical tradition reckons the fear of God to be the beginning of wisdom. We are repeatedly bade ‘do not be afraid’. What Bader-Saye is more concerned about is ‘disordered’ or ‘excessive’ fear and how it create a particular kind of cultural climate. There is need to put ‘fear in its place’. And so Bader-Saye sets about the task of describing its anatomy. What is fear? How is it ‘made up’? What is the difference between ‘right’ and ‘disordered’ fear?
For the sake of this discussion Bader-Saye takes us into a fascinating journey which includes classical theologians, cultural comments, politics and the occasional parable taken from Star Wars. Bader-Saye is interdisciplinary at critical points: he draws upon the sociology of fear done by Frank Furedi and the work on that much over-hyped, double-edged concept, ‘community’. What we have here is good theology made contextual and accessible and immediate. Every chapter ends with an engaging set of questions which could be the source of a helpful group discussion which allows participants to talk about the nature and types of fear, but, doing so, in a context which allows for the possibility of an appropriate sometimes costly, path of discipleship.
Bader-Saye is thus at pains to describe the anatomy of fear and consider its moral consequences. Drawing upon Aquinas he suggests that there are two common options. Faced with a disordered or excessive fear we are likely to ‘attack or contract’ in a spirit of self-preservation: ‘we dig ourselves in’. This tendency to contract can be hidden away in a raft of familiar sayings like ‘saving up for a rainy day’. ‘Aquinas describes how we ‘extend ourselves into fewer things’. Safety and security, all of a sudden, become the aspirational values. The ‘shadow virtues’ of fear are identified as suspicion and pre-emption which is seen as ‘doing unto others before they do unto you’!] Bader-Saye wonders how this kind of emotive and moral outlook compares with the classical Christian conviction that the end of life is to glorify God and seek friendship with God.
Aquinas reckons we can end up fearing what we should not and fearing as we should not. These options are fed by and feed into the contemporary ‘epidemic of loneliness and alienation’. The road to complicity is short. Individuals, communities and churches can quickly be tempted into ways of self-preservation and protection.
Bader-Saye’s description of fear is extremely helpful but it is not an end in itself. The description of a culture of fear is predicated on the notion of following Jesus. Fore this connection to be made Bader-Saye does not move too quickly – an all too common problem. There are stages along the way. The first step has been to give words to fear – in other words, to go through this naming exercise. So much of fear’s power relies upon it being consigned to a ‘wordless darkness’; it seeks out ‘your weakest spot’ but does so in a way that is not named. The virtue which Bader-Saye effectively uses then as a bridge, a middle axiom, is courage. Bader-Saye defines courage as ‘the capacity to do what is right and good in the face of fear’.
The link which is made between courage and following Jesus happens through reference to the doctrine of providence. Bader-Saye is deeply conscious of how poorly providence can fare in today’s world. It can seem old-fashioned, anachronistic. The management and media cultures in which we find ourselves do not leave much room for providence.
The way in which Bader-Saye comes at providence is through what he calls a narrative lens. The intention is to establish a ‘pattern recognition’ between the stories of Scripture and personal narratives? How do we find patterns in the pieces? Can we see through texts that resonate with who we are / should be a pattern of how God has worked in the past? The underlying assumption is that this model ‘figures’ how God works in the present. Through such a figurative reading of narrative providence assumes a character. It lies beyond security and an insurance style of faith. It embraces vulnerability. Bader-Saye argues that providence makes possible courage, hope and patience. It enables the faithful individual and community to be bound to stories which offer up the prospect of hospitality. The capacity to appreciate difference and welcome the stranger represents an alternative to fear and suspicion.
It is not too difficult then to make a connection between hospitality and Jesus. Bader-Saye will extend the link to include peacemaking and generosity. It would, of course, be possible to promote a different understanding of Jesus – perhaps one which is more apocalyptic. Bader-Saye has made a hermeneutical choice. And that is the point. Bader-Saye is intent on mapping an understanding of Christ for a time of fear. He is doing so for the sake of discipleship and following. Bader-Saye has devised a way of engaging with fear with a focus on following Jesus but which is also aided and supported by a collection of doctrines,
This is a very good book. It is timely. It could serve as the basis for a series of sermons. And those sermons could be accompanied by study groups making use of the questions at the end of each chapter. As a matter of fact a whole synod could benefit from such study rather than spending x hours on assorted papers.
United Theological College.
Rev. Clive Pearson is the Principal of United Theological College, North Parramatta, where he has been lecturing since 1997. He is the editor of ‘Faith in a Hyphen: Cross-cultural Theologies DownUnder’, ’30 Years: Korean Ministry in Australia’ , ‘Ian Breward, Letters and Tributes’ and is on the editorial board for the ’International Journal of Public Theology’, ‘Cross-Culture: A Journal of Theology and Ministerial Practice, and Political Theology.