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Monday, January 21, 2019

"Restless Faith" (Richard J. Mouw)

TITLE: Restless Faith: Holding Evangelical Beliefs in a World of Contested Labels
AUTHOR: Richard J Mouw
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2018, (192 pages).

People generally don't like to be labeled but the practice of labeling continues to be practiced in society. Scholars especially would often qualify their definitions of any particular label. On the word "Christian," one might ask what kind of Christian. On the label "Protestant," one might wonder which branch or denomination one is talking about. On the label "evangelical," some might shrug their shoulders or avoid talking about it due to its association with politics on America. Things are no longer taken at face value or treated simplistically. Maybe society has become more sophisticated. Maybe there are more awareness of the increasing diversity of views and opinions. For author and theologian Richard Mouw, the fear of labels should not be allowed to prevent us from using them legitimately. The word in question is "evangelical." Just because of a few bad eggs should not deter us from appropriate use of it. It is true that some from the political right have been giving the label a bad name, the same applies to many other labels open to stereotyping. He uses Alister McGrath's words as support, that "we evangelicals do often operate with an 'under-developed ecclesiology' - but we are willing to live with that defect because of what we have experienced at the hands of 'others who have over-developed ecclesiologies.'" That's a valid point. He also notes the famous historian, David Bebbington's definition of evangelical by saying that his four points were 'emphases' instead of absolute dogmas. A restless faith seeks to hold together two things: Top-notch scholarship (mindfulness) and down-to-earth connections (relational). It is honouring the Bible; walking in the presence of the Holy Spirit; and an awareness of the saints who had walked faithfully in the past.

Mouw takes us through his personal theological journey, sharing with us his thoughts about Bible inerrancy; Orthodoxy; the "second naivete"; fundamentalism; Bible interpretation and Affirmations; and about the secular cultural climate that finds it hard to understand the modern symbols of evangelicalism. He shares a stark discovery of how in a class of forty students in an evangelical college, only six of them know who Billy Graham was. For that, he believes that we need to learn from the past. For all our new advancements or modern progress, we would be impoverished if we fail to learn from history and the lessons from the past. Thankfully, Mouw deals with the painful past in a compassionate way. Knowing that there has been excesses and horrific practices committed by the Church in history, he takes a measured approach. On the one hand, he acknowledges the wrongs done through institutional religion. On the other hand, he realizes that there is an evangelical "position of privilege" that balances confession with compassion; and conviction with obligation. He also talks about the unique position of being a "Christian scholar" in a largely secular culture. He tells of how even the critique of self-actualization in a mental health society could make people misunderstand the theology of sin. In times like this, we are tempted to dilute our theology with compromise. He looks at judgment theology that brings together the consequences of judgment because of sin and the offer of mercy because of love. What really touches people is the gentle and compassionate manner that such a theology is communicated. Mouw goes on to critique some of the other modern movements such as the "positive thinking," the "possibility thinking," the therapeutic culture; the health and wealth gospel; contextualization; and so on. He makes a powerful point about missionaries (and believers) needing to exegete two worlds: The Biblical world and our culture. 

The chapter "About Quoting Hymns" is particularly captivating. In tackling the hymns vs contemporary songs divide, Mouw notes that the difference is essentially generational. He suggests inviting members from both generations to interact. He makes a case for singing more hymns by reminding us once again not to lose sight of the theological tradition and rich theologies we can learn from old hymns. Hymns often are powerful resources to reinforce the main Sunday message. Other virtues include biblical wisdom, poetic beauty, and avoiding sentimentalism that sounds good on the outside but empty on the inside. He is also quick to point out that there are some contemporary songs that are theological sound and worthy.

My Thoughts
First, I find Mouw very fair in making a moderate evangelical stand. He writes passionately and believes in the virtues of historical evangelicalism. He refuses to let the word be hijacked by politicizing individuals. From the word 'activism,' we note that restlessness is still part of the evangelical fabric. This does not mean radicalism or extremism. I like the way that Mouw is able to bring back the merits of tradition and the historical symbols of evangelicalism without dumbing down the cultural reactions against evangelicalism. He is able to connect these tensions in a sensible and sensitive manner. The same sensitivity was done to the approaches taken toward Rob Bell's controversial book "Love Wins." How he manages to deal with critics from both sides is a lesson we can learn from.

Second, Mouw is very open and honest about his own struggles and doubts. He avoids becoming dogmatic about his views. He even shares about his troubles dealing with theological quagmires such as the episode in Romans 11 where Paul talks about the profound mystery of God and the grafting in of Gentiles into the Jewish family tree. He even turns this struggle into a helpful way to tackle theological matters. He invites one to dialogue and is not afraid to live with tensions of unresolved questions. This is crucial with regard to Christian Theology. For instance, we may know a lot about the Holy Trinity but we cannot be so dogmatic as to declare that our view of the Trinity is the way the truth and the life. Only Jesus can say that. We can only affirm what we know for know and to be open for new revelations that may come in the future. That puts Mouw in good stead to dialogue with others such as the Mormons and interfaith conversations. That is a mark of a humble teacher.

Finally, I am most glad to see Mouw's very civil approach in tackling difficult and controversial issues. This is one of the key virtues that evangelicals need most today. While we cannot do much to stop the negative images of Christianity, especially evangelicals in the culture, we can offer up alternative points of view to help others understand that evangelicalism is larger than what the culture paints it to be. This is essentially an act of faith, that trusts God to clarify when there is a need to clarify, and to listen when it's time to listen. One of the problems of modern evangelicalism is the tendency to be too quick to speak and slow to listen. His chapter on "Public Activism" seeks to chart a new path to help us heal from the excesses of cultural and political evangelicalism. Through engagement, we maintain a presence to be ready for any opportunity to clarify views. Thorough a biblical view of authority, we hope to redeem the state of government to be constructive and inclusive.

All of these hopes and dreams form the basis of a restless faith. I concur.

Richard Mouw is President Emeritus and Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Theological Seminary. He has served as President of the same institution from 1993 to 2013.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Brazos Press and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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