A review of
The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap
Reviewed by Sam Edgin
Right now, all I really want to do is rest. That is, I want to do what I would call rest in this moment, which mostly involves ignoring the things I should be doing – like writing this review – so that I can gorge on potato chips and watch unhealthy amounts of Netflix. The darkly lurking knowledge of misspent time would damage most true rest that I would get out of Netflix and chips, but I want those things anyway. It wouldn’t be rest, really, but I’m tired from a long day at work and it sounds brilliantly lazy.
I think that most people are able to point out that rest and laziness are different. At least, somewhere buried in our mounds of productivity, we have the capacity to realize that true resting feels better than lazy resting. Still, we love the half-rest we get as a vegetable in the glow of the TV. We’re tired, and we take what we can get. Maybe, though, we’re selling ourselves short. Maybe there’s a better kind of rest, waiting out there for us to find.
John Koessler, in The Radical Pursuit of Rest posits that we’re offering ourselves this lackluster trade – that of rest for a cycle of productivity and sloth – not just in our work/home lives, but in our faith/worship lives as well. What he wants, and is trying to help us achieve, is a kind of rest that is pursued and found, whole and fulfilling. He describes this kind of rest as “a place and an identity,” and is intent to redefine rest from the posture to which we lazily retreat when we are tired, to a place that we seek within the rush of our days.
This book is shaped as an argument for the pursuit of restful margin. Koessler begins his argument by illustrating the problem: In building our churches and our lives within the bounds of a culture that lifts productivity and success up as utmost virtues we have discarded rest – Sabbath – for bigger numbers and higher profits. With the problem established, he establishes his theological foundation: that God is a god who rests, that the Sabbath should be more holy and more creative than we make it out to be, and that worship in itself should be approached as a kind of rest in itself. He fills out the rest of the book by approaching how rest is applicable to different aspects of our culture and lives.
After all this, I’m mostly convinced of what I think I already knew: that I need to dial in my resting times, and to align them as worship. But what I think is more significant here is that the book has a weighty subtext between its lines. The feeling conveyed consistently is that our spiritual communities have been so much at the whims of our productivity-driven culture that they are not paced any different from the secular communities that surround them, and because of this are losing their perspective on faith.
Koesslers words wax prophetic whenever he begins to broach this subtext. He crafts an understanding of God as a God who rests. If, he says, we are going to acknowledge the timelessness of the divine being, we must see God as in all states at all times: he is always at work and always at rest. If we are pursuing rest, we are pursuing a part of God. This is often at odds with the ambition that our culture so treasures, the resting attribute of God is elusive when our worship is framed with capitalist, individualistic thinking. Our churches wallow in their worship, lured by the shine of individualism and pursuit of bigger numbers and more money. A God who insisted that the last be first, is diametrically opposed to the notion that the best, biggest and wealthiest churches are the most deserving of praise, or even survival.
The prominence of the style and shape of the worship service in choosing a church is a key signifier of this problem within our church culture. So often we find that our worship services serve as entertainment. They are crafted around manufacturing a feeling. Koessler describes it as “Cruise ship spirituality rigorously practice[ing] congregational climate control in an attempt to ensure that those who attend will have the best possible experience,” which is cringingly damning. He approaches worship instead as a restful act that we move ourselves into within the space of our community. It involves a connection with the presence of God, and a mindset shift wherein we begin to see things as Godself does. In this, Koessler suggests that we are shaping ourselves into the restful nature of God.
As attracted as I am to Koessler’s condemning approach to modern corporate worship, I also think that his chapter on worship is the best example of what is missing in his treatise on rest. In the final moments of the chapter he mentions a friend who invited him to a liturgical worship service, emphasizing how good it is because “the first time I attended I fell asleep.” This, he explains, would be cause for most to run, but “maybe she is on to something.”
She is. In fact, there is a whole group of denominations using liturgy and a vast spattering of churches exploring alternative forms of worship that are diving deeply into what Koessler is arguing for, and he leaves them almost entirely out. The Radical Pursuit of Rest falls, with all the best intentions in the world, into the trap of being just another book for evangelicals who are probably more likely to be theologically conservative and white.
There is nothing at all bad about those categories. Depending on who you talk to I am (at least close to) all those things. And yet Koessler is selling his argument short when, in a book critiquing the confluence of the productivity and success culture and church, he gives little mention to the Christian denominations who adhere to their liturgical style, despite the seeming irrelevance it has within our modern, technological culture. And what does he do with services that are inherently energetic, like what are often seen in Black churches or Pentecostal churches? The Radical Pursuit of Rest doesn’t seem to have a good answer for that.
Koessler’s work here is a rope, thrown to a Western church clawing its way out of quicksand. It’s a good rope. Strong, with a solid anchor at the other end, and the church can definitely reach it. But Koessler seems to have missed all the other ropes that surround the pit. Some are very different, some oddly similar. To me, I’d rather all those people proffering those ropes be working together, in unison.
But at its heart, The Radical Pursuit of Rest is a good book doing a good thing. Koessler is critiquing the ways the secular culture has seeped into our worship and view of God and showing us a way forward. This way is determined by paying a specific attention to each facet of our lives and responding accordingly. Work when it is needed of you. Rest, and rest well, when it is time. Worship heedlessly through it all.