Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Pursuing Justice by Ken Wytsma and The Unkingdom of God by Mark van Steenwyk

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review (I bought my own copy of The Unkingdom of God). My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware I would relish the chance to give a bad review in exchange for a free book. If I've failed to do so, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

I did not intend to read two books about the same thing at the same time; it just happened that way. I agreed to review Ken Wytsma's Pursuing Justice and Mark Van Steenwyk's The Unkingdom of God just happened to be the next book on my "to read" shelf. Both deal deeply with justice and Christian life. Both derive from a biography of radical change.

I expected the books to be quite different. Wytsma is an evangelical pastor and teacher, famous for founding the Justice Conference; his book is published by one of the big names in Christian media. Van Steenwyk is a Mennonite most people have never heard of, who lives in communal housing, hosts a podcast, can often be found at protests, and promotes Christian anarchy.

I expected to resonate profoundly with the challenge of The Unkingdom of God and generally shrug at Pursuing Justice. I found them profoundly similar and equally important - which is why I've included both in this review.

I appreciated Van Steenwyk's overt admission of struggle and hypocrisy. He presents a strong challenge to the empire (read: American) dominance in our culture - not just public culture, but Christian culture as well. It's the kind of theological approach most often seen from hippies and radicals and hardcore followers of Christ. Can Steenwyk presents all of those things, but with the humility and honesty to say, "yeah, but I buy my kid a Happy Meal from time to time, too." There's a real value in recognizing that life isn't an either/or; the reality of the world in which we live is complicated and precludes perfection in any form.

I found Wytsma's book to be profoundly deep. He begins with the assumption his readers have no concept of biblical justice and meets people there. The book does proceed rather quickly to some real theological depth, especially challenging the stereotypical, generic evangelicalism I was expecting from a Thomas Nelson imprint. Perhaps it is the clout of his Justice Conference or the real need for such a book to be published, but there is just as much revolutionary, radical, in-your-face truth as is found in The Unkingdom of God. The eighth chapter alone, on consumerism, is worth whatever you pay for the book.

Both books are rooted in the concept of shalom - more than just peace, but a sense of rightness, fulfillment, a flourishing of all creation. This is the Kingdom of God so often spoken of by Jesus, it is the goal of the Church, and the end result of justice. While the specifics of the illustrations and the implications of each author may vary, the point of each is to connect God's people to God's mission of restoring shalom.

I spent some time reflecting on what exactly makes these books so different and yet so the same. I've arrived at this:

Wytsma's challenge is to get beyond your mostly just, comfortable world and give your life in pursuit of God's restorative shalom. It is, in essence, to expand your sphere of concern. Van Steenwyk's challenge is to look around you and see your mostly just, comfortable world as neither just nor comfortable, and thus to live into the dream of a better way.

In both cases this involves a deep dive into the margins - a sacrifice of comfort and cultural expectancy in exchange for life as it was created to be lived. Pursuing Justice helps the reader wade into the pool of injustice, whilst The Unkingdom of God pushes you, unexpectedly, right into the deep end.

I hope it's not too cliched to say both are important. Each book will appeal to certain audiences who will likely ignore the other outright. I'd say there are some chapters which work less well than others in each book; at 300 pages, Wytsma's is certainly longer than it has to be. Neither one is a home run, but they're valuable, worthwhile additions to the library.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze.com® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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