Author: Leonard Sweet, 2004 (Waterbrook Press)
What is the number one problem today? Global warming? The rich-poor divide? Rampant over-population? Crime? Social critic and cultural observer Sweet has a different view. He opens his introduction with a provocative statement: "The number one problem in the world is people's living disconnected lives." From this, his fascinating and easily readable book can be summarized in two words: relationships and mystery.
He poses three questions at the outset: "Why did God create us? What does God require of us? What is the essence of 'faith in God'?" (p.7) Although he immediately answers that question with a quote from the prophet Micah (6:8 "To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with
your God") he spends the rest of the book answering these questions. In particular, though, the first question takes precedence: "there is only one answer: for relationships" (p.16). Relationships, then, become the focus of the book. Indeed, the book is divided into 8 parts, each focusing on a specific relationship (faith, God, Bible, others within the faith, others outside the faith, creation, art, and the spiritual world).
Sweet begins with faith and belief. These are often muddled together, but Sweet offers a different perspective: "To admit (believe) falls far short of to commit (faith)" (p.23). Later he says, "an act of belief is stepping forth based on what you know. In contrast, an act of faith is stepping forth as you admit you don't know." (p.115) Faith is primal, taking precedent over belief. "Faith is . . . a mystery to be lived." (p.31) Here is the first use of the concept of mystery, a theme that weaves throughout the book until becoming prominent at the end.
I am a fan of Leonard Sweet. A Wesleyan theologian, he offers fresh views of Scripture while continuing to hold to its primacy. He is easy to read, yet his style is arresting, challenging even compelling. He says old things in new ways. An example: "Evangelism is the practice of out-narrating the world by telling a much better story" (p.85) and " evangelism is inviting prodigals to a party" (p.149)
The highlights of the book for me are Sweet's fresh approaches to the Abraham-Isaac sacrifice story and the prodigal son-father parable.
Most people know of the Abraham-Isaac story outlined in Genesis 22. It is elevated as a successful testing of Abraham's faith, the culmination of his relationship with God. This is not Sweet's belief. In contrast, "Abraham's silence in the face of an outrageous command from God signals a failure of relationship on his part. . . . Here is the real point of the Abraham story: what God wants from us, even more than our obedience, is our relationship." (p.53) We are back to that central theme. But, remembering that Abraham argued with God over the fate of Sodom (Gen. 18), Sweet asks, "why did Abraham not struggle with God about his beloved son?" (p.57) He answers this question later, "The fact that Abraham kept his head down on the three-day hike to Mount Moriah, refusing to show God his face, speaks volumes about his vacating of his prior intimacy with God." (p.125) So, rather than being a testimony to his great faith, it is evidence of his declining faith. This is sure to challenge the beliefs of many, as it did me.
The chapter on the parable of the prodigal son is good, though not at the level of the Abraham-Isaac story. Sweet asks, "what actually was the younger brother's sin? Not 'loose living,' but nonliving in relationship with his father." (p.147) But the other brother was not unblemished. "The elder brother who stayed home had every virtue but one -- love. Anyone without love is as lost as you can get." (p.148) Summarizing both brothers, "we are either away from God but drawing near, or we are near to God but drawing away." (p.149) Which are we?
Although mystery remains covert for most of the book, it is there nevertheless. And it comes into the spotlight in center stage at the very end tying into relationship very neatly:"Relationships only stay alive by retaining the mystery. Once something is fully known it dies." (p.196) We can apply this aphorism to any relationship. When relationships lose this mystery, they become stagnant and suffocate. Boredom takes over. Divorce often follows.
Sweet's early chapters are terrific, but the last three chapters fall short of the early promise, as though he needed to address the topics of creation, art and spiritual world but had run out of significant ideas. Yet this book is worth the read, if only for the view of the Abraham-Isaac story and the discussion of Abraham's relationship with God. Has Sweet unlocked the mystery of that relationship? Read and reflect.
Note: I received a free copy from Waterbrook Publishing but was not
influenced to provide a positive review.