Friday, August 31, 2007

2007 Book of the Year: Exclusion and Embrace

This may seem a tad premature, but I am confident that I have just read, and can therefore name, my "Book of the Year". Last year I chose "Beyond Foundationalism" by Grenz and Franke. I'm pretty sure it didn't give the same sales bump as Oprah might have but, nonetheless, it seemed to me a very important book, and such a thing deserved to be said. Such a thing deserves to be said again.

Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace is perhaps the most important book of our day. I'm not kidding. Now, granted, it is already over 10 years old, but sometimes the most important things take awhile to get noticed. This one has been noticed by plenty of scholars of course. But it took 10 years to trickle down to me. Even though I've noticed it being quoted in a lot of different places, I really only read it because I had to for a class.

Am I ever glad.

Miroslave Volf has written an intensely well-researched, thought-out, and articulate book on the social ramifications of the Christian gospel. But that is not really a fair description of the book. That is where it ends up, but as its subtitle states, all throughout it is a thorough and honest Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation.

In it one finds a compelling argument for the way of Christ as the only sensical hope for "progress" that this world will ever have. In it one finds a defining guide toward understanding personal identity intertwined with a landmark depiction of the integral dynamic of relational community. In it one also finds a lucid presentation on the themes of justice, truth, and peace that actually makes you willing to believe in them again. Add it all up and this is quite simply a very important book.

There may be one or two points in this book that I'd quibble about, but honestly, I think this book has defined my worldview. It is the way of the cross. Nothing rings more true to me in the whole world than what this book presents.

The interesting thing about it is that Volf panders to no one. Evangelicals will read this and squirm. He takes on everything from gender to isolationism, judgmentalism to the support of violence. Atheists, too, will read this and recognize many of their own quoted in its pages and taken in a positive light. But they will likely be surprised at how such a compilation of atheist philosophers can each lend a voice to the truth of Christ.

I could provide excerpts but it would be too hard to choose. Whether it is trumping Neitzche's "will to power" with the more-important "will to embrace", disarming the notion that we can ever administer justice without serving the cycle of injustice, or reminding the church of the anti-Christian trend of merely living inside itself---Volf challenges everyone. But not just to challenge them, as if he wants to be the next "cool" author to lead a revolution. There is none of that book-selling crap going on here. Volf challenges all without really calling anyone out. He is gentle but miles away from naive. He is a Croatian who has seen many atrocities in his own time and still realizes he must admit the power of forgiveness. He is courageous. He wades right into the violence and pluralism and self-righteousness of our world and puts in his two cents. Two cents worth a million.

This is probably the most honest book I've ever read. Volf will pose an "answer" and then thoroughly question his own answers to try to get at the truth. Which he does in spades, if you ask me.

My one warning with Volf's book is that it may be hard to read. It is written for the academic world. I had to read pretty slow. But it is well worth the effort for those who don't want to wait for it to trickle into more readily accessible literature. Even if you were just to read the first three chapters you would likely find your life and worldview challenged and benefitted immensely.

If you know me or you've been reading me at all you know I'm pretty concerned about the state of the world, and even more concerned about the state of evangelicalism. To paraphrase one of the many great lines from the book: We seem to be improving ourselves to death. In regard to the church and the world, this book represents my only hope. Sounds exagerrated, maybe, but I mean it.

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