Review by Jonathan Mitchican
It is no secret that the church in America is in a state of collapse, particularly among the young who consider the Faith increasingly irrelevant to their lives. In response, churches have tried all sorts of new and exotic approaches to keeping people interested, from the life coaching sermons and sugar pop music of megachurches to the “Let’s all fix the world” mantra that has become the raison d’être of the liberal mainline churches. None of it has worked. If anything, our efforts at reigniting church have driven young people further away. Into this mix has emerged Jonathan Fisk’s new book, Broken: 7 “Christian” Rules That Every Christian Ought to Break as Often as Possible. His suggestion for how to fix the church and keep our young people to boot is radically simple: Stop trying.
Fisk has developed a strong following in the last couple of years through his show on YouTube called Worldview Everlasting, which garners thousands of viewers each week. In that medium, Fisk speaks to mostly twenty and thirty-somethings, mixing his staunchly Lutheran presentation of the gospel with pop-culture references, funny video clips, and quips. That may sound unsophisticated, but Fisk does not shy away from hard topics, delving into the theology of atonement and sacramental grace and quoting from the original Greek when explicating passages from the New Testament. The edginess of the videos allows Fisk to speak the deepest, most complicated, and controversial truths of the Christian faith to those who would never encounter them in dusty old tomes or seminary textbooks.
In Broken, Fisk tries to accomplish the same thing in book form with somewhat mixed results. Each chapter explores a particular “Christian rule” that Fisk attempts to debunk, a popular idea that is circulating today that is meant to make the church more accessible but instead draws our attention away from God and toward ourselves. He includes a number of characters along the way like “Punk Rock John” and “Emo Dan,” fictional stand-ins for the many young Christians who have been shipwrecked by contemporary Christian culture and lost their faith.
Fisk also personifies many of the “rules” he is writing against. This becomes confusing and, at times, absurd. About prosperity preaching, for instance, Fisk writes: “Once Mysticism and Rationalism had brought forth Pragmatism on the world, the doctors were surprised to see that grabbing at his ankle was a second child, smaller in stature but more beautiful in form. ... Incestuously entwined around his arm whenever he is in public, he shows her off to everyone he meets, ever pointing out her companionship as the proof of his passion and wit” (pp. 118-19). Long, confusing metaphors like this derail the reader from Fisk’s point, as do a number of the somewhat dated 1980s pop culture references he makes.
The book has other distractions as well, such as a variety of ink-drawn pictures that often seem superfluous to the writing, as well as a fairly scattered system of making certain words bold or large, or placing them in a different font altogether. While this approach is part of what makes Worldview Everlasting genius, on paper it just feels gimmicky and unnecessary. Many readers will be tempted to abandon the book for just such reasons. This would be a mistake, however, as Fisk’s overall point, that we are so obsessed with the church that we are losing the gospel, is one that American Christians desperately need to hear, especially Anglicans. Though Fisk has described this book as “a Trojan horse for Lutheranism,” a great deal of what he is advocating is ground that Lutheranism and classical Anglicanism share in common: the pure gospel truth of salvation through God’s grace, given uniquely through Christ, offered in Word and Sacrament without anything added or taken away.
Fisk’s villains are sometimes misnamed. For instance, the first enemy he goes after is “Mysticism,” which he defines repeatedly as “the worship of your emotions.” The main target of his ire here seems to be emotionalism and the tendency of many forms of modern American Christianity to locate God in our subjective experience rather than in the objective truth of God’s Word. Examples of this phenomenon abound, from the emotionally manipulative music and preaching of much of American evangelicalism to the attraction of so many liberal churches to building labyrinths and encouraging spiritual visioning exercises while ignoring or avoiding the preaching of Christ crucified.
However, there is a legitimate, ancient, and venerable tradition of mysticism in Christianity that has nothing to do with emotionalism. Sometimes God breaks into our world in unexpected and even unwelcome ways. St. Theresa of Avila, St. Francis of Assisi, and Julian of Norwich were not seeking the experiences of God that were thrust upon them, but through the life of the Church their experiences were discerned to be in accordance with the Word of God, not abhorrent to it. They would be quite surprised to find themselves lumped in with Benny Hinn and the music of Willow Creek.
Nevertheless, even when Fisk fumbles in his description, he still manages to identify real forces at work in American Christianity that are poisoning the church. In addition to emotionalism, Fisk excoriates moralism, rationalism, consumerism, and licentiousness, all of which have been considered by one group of Christians or another, at one time or another, as the Next Big Thing that would solve all our problems, squash all our doubts, and win the youth of America back to Jesus. Fisk exposes these for what they are: lies we tell ourselves about how we can fix ourselves so that we do not have to place all our trust in Christ.
Fisk saves his most incisive comments for something he calls “IfWeCanJust churchology,” a demon whose temptations seem to me to have been particularly effective upon Episcopalians in recent years. When we look around our churches and see that they are no longer filled to the brim, we immediately begin to surmise that there is some kind of silver-bullet answer. If we can just change our music, rearrange our worship, champion more causes, get better and younger/older preachers, or a host of other things — if we can just do that one thing that we need to do, then the church will be all right again.
“Just as pornography feeds young men and women falsely perfected images of impossibly idealized sexuality until they cannot find contentment in any real relationship,” says Fisk, “so also trying to compel God’s blessings into the Church through ‘IfWeCanJust’ theology preaches a falsely perfected vision of an impossibly idealized ‘Church’ until no congregation can live up to its expectations” (p. 171). In our churches today we fall prey to this at all levels, including within our own hearts. Countless Episcopalians have been seduced to leave the church for the theoretical perfection of Rome or Orthodoxy or a new, more perfect Anglican church, but in the process of trying to find that one pure church that must exist out there somewhere, we often lose sight of the cross completely.
The genius and great hope in what Fisk is saying is that the answer to all of this madness is to turn back toward Jesus, to repent and be filled again with the knowledge of his grace and his truth. Some readers may scoff at this. It just seems so simple. Just focus on Jesus. Just preach the words that he gave us and give people the good news that he died for them. It cannot possibly be that easy. If it were, everybody would be doing it, right? But as St. Augustine is apt to remind us, we are creatures curved in on ourselves. Our first impulse as fallen creatures is never to place our trust in God. It is rather to say, along with the serpent, “Did God really say that?” Our churches languish and die because we do not trust God to be the one to build them.
The answer to our problems is a return to the full-throated, plain, simple teaching of the truth, but we do not believe this because we do not have faith that God means what he says. Jesus Christ “is reaching down by means of the Body of His Church with what appears on the surface to be the weakest and most unhelpful of things in the world: words. But these are not just any words; they are promises. These are not just any promises; they are oaths sworn by the mouth of the living God Himself, written in blood and sealed with an empty tomb” (p. 265).
The future of the Church is not to be found in our efforts to make it more relevant or attractive. And though tools like social networking and new media can and should be used to help share the gospel with new generations, those things are in no way a gospel unto themselves. Upon the rock of Peter’s faith in him Jesus said he would build his Church, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). It is high time that our churches stop playing with the latest and greatest ways to build the Church in our own image and start actually believing what Jesus said.