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.