Review: Faith Without Illusions, Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint – Full

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I have reposted the first part of the review, with the second part of the book reviewed at the bottom:

Every so often, books come along which actually live up to its title. Often, I find that authors sensationalize their titles, with very little in the book which actually relates to the title. Byers hasn’t. As the title plainly states, this book actually deals with faith, moving past illusions, living, and sainthood through the ideas of cynicism. But, there is just so much more.

I was expecting something different, something like a mood ring, but always on black. Instead, I found a book by another young theologian which calls attention to the need to move past the black and remember that cynicism is good for only a short time. Byers is presenting himself as a prophet who is calling attention to the problems of the Church, problems which he has lived and struggled to overcome. He is honest and speaks with the words which many of my generation – and indeed, many in each generation – need to hear. I think of the Prophet Amos, who was one of Israel’s elite, was able to preach to them out of experience and a shared status. Here, Byers speaks to both the idealist and the cynic because he was both once. Now, he is what he calls a ‘hopeful realist’ and is issuing a call to those who are in either camp to, well, get real.

In this first part, Byers introduces himself in humiliating fashion, telling of his own road to the Fall in which he experiences the wall which I hope every Christian meets as hard as I have. A review shouldn’t be a repeat of his book, so I will not rehash his experiences, but in them, I find myself being examined. I find the rush of cynicism destroys my idealism as I read of the ‘veil of self-deception’ being ripped off to stand as Javert did when he suffered “the derailment of a soul, the crushing of a probity irresistibly hurled in a straight line and breaking up against God.” Byers rips the scab off of my own soul when he writes, “The exposure of our empty moralism can prove devastating.” (p53) Indeed, and what Byers is attempting to do is to expose both our empty cynicism and our empty idealism before we face that devastating moment from which so few return. In doing so, he tackles what he appropriately calls ‘Pop Christianity.’ He calls out this spirit of the age as what leads us to cynicism. To be fair, this is not all which leads us to cynicism, but this is a major factor. Perhaps it is too much to write about all of the factors which leads us to cynicism, but Byers’ first entry does tackle the one which is more than likely to be epidemic. He sets out five chapters on the hallmarks of Pop Christianity: idealism, religiosity, experientialism, anti-intellectualism and cultural irrelevance. Immediately, I know that I have met two of the three of those in my own battles with Pop Christianity, and can pick out a few more which my more-cynical-than-I friends have encountered. Imagine that any reader, if she is honest with herself, will be able to pick one of those areas out, or perhaps he simply is so enthralled in Pop Christianity that he cannot see his quickly approaching wall.

The Wall is not the only reason to pick up this book, but it is a significant one. Byers notes this and notes that this collision is more often than not a violent act which occurs before ‘the sharp plummet’ into the pit of despair which. He also writes that this will be an embittered embrace (p7), to which my soul shouts a loud amen. This is Byers’ strong suit, wherein he connects with wonderful and stark imagery of what a cynic actually is. He notes the joy we take in causing others to hit that wall, or to impune others for their simplistic faith. He says that this is our delight. He’s right but he notes that this is because of our wounds. Byers doesn’t discourage cynicism. Instead, he understands it and urges cynics to come back to what he calls ‘hopeful realism’ (p12). Make no mistake. This is not a self-help book meant to be edgy, or bitter, or anything which self-help books are meant to be. This is a book which acknowledges the wounds of the cynic, embraces them, puts salt in them, and calls for a healing which leaves a beautiful scar. (p25)

He calls idealism untenable (p30), and the reasons why become more apparent when he advances on the role of anti-intellectualism in the Church in chapter six. He further calls for detanglement (p33) of our culture (how popular is this book really going to be with ideas like this?) from the Scriptures. He slams the motivational style of preaching (are you listen Texas?) and calls for realistic Christian preaching which helps to mitigate idealism and thus the stiff response by cynics. You have to get the feeling that Byers is raging against the idealistic machine which produces cynics and helps to keep the wounds open. No one who has their eyes open harshly wants to close them once more.

And you know who you are, those who Byers’ answers with his chapters on religiosity and experientialism. Oh, you know. But, in case you don’t, especially with the latter, consider Byers’ example of Saul who was caught being the spiritual sort, and how that applies across the American Charismatic/Pentecostal spectrum. Here, I wish he had left those of us who refuse to pay any more attention to these types of people, or the move of the Spirit, or anything dealing with us examining God’s daily interaction with our world alone. But he didn’t. The one thing that I have to keep in the back of my mind, especially when Byers’ is at his most critical is that he has been here before. The criticism then becomes empathetic sympathy, and we understand this when he writes, “My cynical skepticism was destructive, not edifying.” (p79) Byers is not just writing to us cynics, but to the idealists who use this ‘spiritual’ walk to judge others by. But to the both of us, we are commended to each other because the Church contains both. (p84)

In the final chapter of part 1, Byers takes on the rising tide of anti-intellectualism in the Church which is leading to cynicism and worse, to flat out rejection of the Faith. There are real issues with the text, which Byers’ gives some of the more well known which no doubt will be a brick in the wall of a few, and yet many simply do not deal with it. Here, you being to get the picture of the previous chapters, all feeding into one another. Anti-intellectualism causes many of the other preventative measures in Pop Christianity ( experientialism, idealism, etc…) but serves as well as to be the fuel additive for those of who are rushing head long into the wall of our Faith. Byers notes,

Once upon a time in American Christianity, anti-intellectualism was understood as a rejection of the established church. The protests were so successful in the evangelical tradition that today the situation is reversed – intellectualism is now often understood as a rejection of the established church. (p95)

This book should be incorporated into the first semester of a Seminarian’s course load, as at least some of the cynicism which develops – and which should develop – in seminary can be turned into what Byers has labeled as hopeful realism. He is right, after all, that often times those who wake up to the difficulties of the text and Church Tradition generally have no one to lead them on the right path. Byers doesn’t seem himself as that person – of if he does, he doesn’t so ostensibly claim the role for himself – but we get the sense that he knows that such a person is needed.

Part 2 deals with the Biblical Alternatives to Cynicism.

This section of the book is quite different than section one. In this section, Byers is trying to redirect the cynicism of the disillusioned into the biblical model of what he has labeled hopeful realism. This is not a suped-up bible study, but it is a section which deals expressly with biblical examples of how the disillusioned, something which Byers commends, remained apart from the cynics. In doing so, he examines the Ways, as he calls them, and there are four: the Prophet, the Sage, the Tragic Poet, and the Christ. The final chapter deals with the fact that when you (believe that you) have a dead guy burst from the Tomb, alive, into your midst, it must be difficult to remain cynical about the Faith, or even life in general. This, he commends to us, is our strength.

One thing I admire about Byers, is that he isn’t shy to speak his mind, but he does so, especially in relationship to the fact that some of my cynicism may in fact be directed towards God, with humility. That is often missing from those who are trying to work with cynics, and indeed, that view point only serves to push cynics into the abyss of anger. Yet, Byers takes Job and Jeremiah, and others, and doesn’t condemn us for our cynicism, and while stating that it is not the biblical course of thought, shows that others may have slipped that way, and with good cause (120-121). It is the difference, with such as Jeremiah, in our voices, of the prophet and the cynic, in that prophets include disgust and love, whereas the cynic, well, the shrillness is often met only with more shrillness…and growing contempt (p124). This contempt will cause the distance of Jonah (p129) and will eventually lead to a dark place for us who persist on adding our voice to the choir of shrillness.

He notes that the cynic’s trend is,

Among the spiritually cynical, it is in vogue to not care, to be disaffected and disinterested, to laugh at the church rather than to weep for the church. (133)

And he is correct. Further, he notes that those who pursue this cynicism will turn their anguish into anger. (134). He is, again, correct. For the modern disaffected believer, there is the ability to turn from anguish, with our wounds becoming infected simply because we don’t want them healed, to out right anger to God, His Church, and even ourselves. This is not a self-book by any means, but it is a first-aid kit, so to speak.

In the next chapter, he takes on the Way of the Sage, Biblical Wisdom Instead of Cynical Intellectualism. He calls for this wisdom (which is intellectual, to be sure) to be used to teach God’s people about the deceit of Pop Christianity (143). I cannot image this making Byers too popular with the Pop Christianity crowd, but this is his strength. He has been there, in Pop Christianity, in idealism, in cynicism. His take on Proverbs and Job, especially with the thought of the ever-present monsters of Chaos lingering around us (p147) is both enlightening and entertaining (and indeed, Byers’ style is easy to digest), however, I disagree strongly with his attempt to make Ecclesiastes into a book of hopeful realism.

Most critical scholars would remove the final few verses of the book, which was appended later to counter what I believe is cynicism throughout the Preacher’s text. I do not find that the book is about finding ‘simple joys even in the face of the life’s vicissitudes’ (p151) as completely grounded into the text itself. There is no hope for the author of Ecclesiastics (4.1-4), either in this life nor the next. As a matter of fact, there is no such thing as the next life for the ancient author. While Byers attempts to show how even a pessimist may resolve him or herself  descending into the abyss of vanquish, I believe that he would be better served to take this as a canonical witness and how while it was accepted, it simply isn’t replete with an over joyous bond of quotes from the Gospel writers. I do agree that Qoholeth is important to listen to, however, and that indeed, it helps us to actually avoid becoming like the Preacher (p154).

It’s the bit about the Poet that helps us to like Byers (more), especially when he understands, and accepts, that some of the cynic’s disillusionment is with God Himself (p158).  In this chapter, he takes us through the role of the Psalms, especially the lament poems, to show that even in the darkest of time of the poet, he was able to lament, cry out to God, and yet, add praise with the lament. Perhaps this idea of lament, and he is correct that often times it is is this portion worship which is looked down up, needs to be reincorporated into our liturgy. In this, we can do as Byers suggests and bring our disillusionment with God to God, but to do so we must equally be prepared for the result (p168). His notion of that still-sacred place between blasphemy and reverence is interesting, needed, and ever-yet still frightening (p170). Throughout this chapter, and indeed, the chapters of this second part, Byers is able to (re)present the biblical model of handling disillusionment, so as to affect the disaffected in hopes of showing that they need not include the necessary by-products of cynicsm in their discourse with the Church. Indeed, this entire book should be regarded as a plea to the cynic to use their disillusionment as a gift, if they can stay away from anger.

In the final two chapters, Byers takes Christ as the example of the one who could very well claim cynicism, but yet we are told through the Gospel writers that he met his fate with a hopeful realism which excluded cynicism, but broke the bonds of disillusionment. This example, then is lifted up to us through the Apostle Paul who struggled with many things in his ministry, which should have become stumbling blocks but didn’t. Near the end of the book, p209, Byers writes regarding cruciformity and anastasisity,

There is no true Christian ministry apart from the potentially disillusioning experiences of suffering, betrayal and imminent death.

This is, again, a strength of Andrew Byers, in that he recognizes cynicism and calls us to use that as a gift, turning it into a hopeful realism based upon the Resurrected Saviour.

Reflection:

I don’t usually do this with books which I have reviewed, but I wanted to offer up a few words here because I know that some of you, like me, have the wounds of a cynic. Sometimes, we find ways around them, for a while, but mostly, they are merely festering under the surface. What Andrew Byers has done is to address us, those of us hurt by one version of Pop Christianity or another, and calls us to a Scriptural foundation for returning to use our new gift, opened eyes, for the Church. We are bound to experience cynicism, and Byers doesn’t dismiss that, nor discount our feelings. Instead, just the opposite. He understands them, and like a pastor, doesn’t want us to remain there.

You know my reasons – I grew up in a fundamentalist church, very sectarian. In the words of  a wise man, I hit a wall. Hard. It liked to have killed me, but we moved on. Frankly, sometimes, I still have my own struggles which prevent me from wanting to move one. Sometimes, I want to be a cynic, and in that, have nearly destroyed some very important relationships to me. I am depleting emotional resources, mine and others, because I want to remain a cynic. I need to remain a cynic because I don’t want to be hurt any more, I want to avoid confrontation – I want to retreat. My flight or fight response is so screwed up anymore that there are times I just melt down internally. But this is what a wound that festers does. This is what a sick soul becomes. We become death.

Andrew has a gift because he was there. While his experiences aren’t the same as mine, or yours, or rather, why he become a cynic may not be, the fact is, is that he got up, and finally moved on. Now he wants us to do the same. There is no hurt worse than church-hurt. We are hurt by church people, our friends and our loved ones in the congregation, but in our reality, we are hurt by God. Why I still shout, in that space between blasphemy and reverence, did God Himself not step down out of heaven to keep me from hitting that wall. Dang it! It hurt. It still does. I do blame God for that wall. I do blame him for that hurt, for the depravity of the people who did what they did, and for my own stance, theology, and spirituality which prevented me from seeing just how fast I was racing to that wall. And now, I want to take that anger out on other church people, on the less informed, on the idealistic souls who are so deluded as to think that ‘Jesus Saves’ is not merely a great anthem, but the sum total of the Scriptural experience.

I cannot tell you what reading Byers’ book has done, but I can say that I think that I am about ready to move on. Dang it.

You can daily interact with Andrew here.

Author: Joel Watts

Joel L. Watts holds a MA in Theological Studies from United Theological Seminary. and MA in Clinical Mental Health at Adams State University. He is the author of Mimetic Criticism of the Gospel of Mark: Introduction and Commentary (Wipf and Stock, 2013), a co-editor and contributor to From Fear to Faith: Stories of Hitting Spiritual Walls (Energion, 2013), and Praying in God's Theater, Meditations on the Book of Revelation (Wipf and Stock, 2014). his latest, Jesus as Divine Suicide, is forthcoming.

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