Book Review: A Public Faith

Book Review: A Public Faith

By: Miroslav Volf

Publisher: Brazos Press ISBN: 9781587432989

A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good

I’ve been meaning to review this book for quite some time now, but it took longer to read it than I thought it would. At just over one hundred fifty pages (not counting the notes section), it is not that long of a read. The point of it taking me longer to read than anticipated was my feeling “over my head” quite often. There are over two-hundred references noted in the book and most of them unknown or unread by me. It was necessary for me to put the book down on more than a few occasions to reflect and research on what I had read. I must say it was worth my time and worth every minute of my effort. I appreciate the challenge the book was for me to read and I appreciate the challenge to me personally with the call to exercise and integrate my faith in ways and in places I might not have been so eager to enter previous to reading Volf’s thesis in A Public Faith.

Volf relates the sum of the premise for this volume in his introduction stating; “My contention in this book is that there is no single way in which Christian faith relates and ought to relate to culture as a whole. The relation between faith and culture is too complex for that. Faith stands in opposition to some elements of culture and is detached from others. In some aspects faith is identical with elements of culture, and it seeks to transform in diverse ways yet many more. Moreover, faith’s stance toward culture changes over time as culture changes. How, then, is the stance of faith toward culture defined? It is—or it ought to be—defined by the center of the faith itself, by its relation to Christ as the divine Word incarnate in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  It is with this contention that Volf seeks to explore three questions he poses within the pages of A Public Faith. The questions follow:

  1. In what ways does the Christian faith malfunction in the contemporary world, and how should we counter these malfunctions (chapter1-3)?
  2. What should be the main concern of Christ’s followers when it comes to living well in the world today (chapter 4)?
  3. How should Christ’s followers go about realizing their vision of living well in today’s world in relation to other faiths and together with diverse people with whom they live under the roof of a single state (chapters 5-7)?

Personally, I found chapter one, Malfunctions of Faith, fascinating. Volf frames this piece in a framework he calls “ascent and return” malfunctions and bases the discussion on the prophetic illustrations of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad.  To quote Volf’s definition of these points, he describes ascent malfunctions as “the result from breakdowns in the prophet’s encounter with the divine and reception of the message.”  He goes on to say, “Every ascent malfunction is at the same time a return malfunction.” If my paraphrase is correct, the return malfunction further compromises the message or word of God by transforming it in their own name or in the name of some alien god… or god of their own making.  This chapter is full of brilliant thinking I had previously been unexposed to; for instance, he describes the concept of idolatric substitution as one of the ascent malfunctions using the golden calf story from the Exodus narrative. It is the introduction to some of these (for me) new concepts using stories I understand or am familiar with that was helpful in preparing me for the next chapters of the book. I will say again, this first chapter was fascinating to me.

Chapter two continue with greater detail and explanation describing practical malfunctions of faith. Specifically, chapter two addresses the malfunction of idleness as it regards faith. Volf shares three main reasons for faith’s idling: (1) for some people, the faith they embrace demands too much, so they pick and choose, as in a cafeteria, filling up their tray with sweets but leaving aside the broccoli and fish. (2) Believers find themselves constrained by large and small systems in which they live and work; to thrive, or even to survive, they feel that they must obey the logic of those systems, not the demands of faith they embrace. (3) Concerning the faith itself, the faith either is not applied to new circumstances or does not seem relevant to contemporary issues. Volf goes on to provide counters to idleness with suggestions on how we might understand and practice an active faith through blessing, deliverance, guidance, and meaning.

I must admit I got a little bit bogged down in chapters three and four having to stop several times, put the book down, and really think through what I was reading. I was relieved when Volf neared the end of chapter four with this summary recap of part one of the book:

Most malfunctions of faith are rooted in a failure to love the God of love or a failure to love the neighbor. Ascent malfunctions happen when we don’t love God as we should. We either love our interests, purposes, and projects, and then employ language about God to realize them (we may call this “functional reduction”), or we love the wrong God (we may call this “idolatric substitution”). Return malfunctions happen when we love neither our neighbor nor ourselves properly—when faith either merely energizes or heals us but does not shape our lives so that we live them to our own and our neighbors’ benefit, or when we impose our faith on our neighbors irrespective of their wishes.

The challenge facing Christians is ultimately very simple: love God and neighbor rightly so that we may both avoid malfunctions of faith and relate God positively to human flourishing. And yet, the challenge is also complex and difficult… (p.73)

Amen. Complex and difficult indeed.

Chapters five and six are two more extraordinary discourses on very practical applications of living the Christian faith in a pluralistic society. Chapter five, Identity and Difference, addresses the identity of the Christian within the context of a society or community. The context being realized as having an identity that is different from the mainstream of the community…remaining unique, being seen as different, but not being separate… able to contribute without being completely absorbed: This is my paraphrase. Volf summarizes his thoughts as follows; “To become a Christian means to divert without leaving. To live as a Christian means to keep inserting a difference into a given culture without ever stepping outside that culture to do so.”

Chapter six is titled Sharing Wisdom and also ranks as one of my favorite chapters of the book. Volf’s ideas about sharing wisdom was affirming and convicting at the same time for me. The past few years has taught me much in the vein of what is shared in this chapter. I continue to be stretched in my faith and my learning to be Christ-like with teaching like I have found in this chapter. I think anyone reading this book will be stretched similarly if they can maintain an openness to hear what is shared in it.

I think this is an important book; timely in nature, sobering and challenging in its message, and hopeful with its suggestions for correction. I pray it falls into right hands, leaders who are humble, intelligent, vocal, and confident about what God is doing in the world. I’ll close my review with a final quote from Volf on “sharing wisdom.”

Sharing religious wisdom makes sense only if that wisdom is allowed to counter the multiple manifestations of self-absorption by givers and receivers alike and to connect them with what ultimately matters—God, whom we should love with all our being, and neighbors, whom we should love as ourselves. (p.117)

A great book; it may not appeal to a broad demographic, but for those who are willing to endure the challenges it presents, there is “much gold to be mined.”

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