A Feature Review of
Break Open the Sky: Saving Our Faith from a Culture of Fear
Chicago’s historic Fourth Presbyterian Church at the corner of Michigan Avenue (the “Miracle Mile”) and Chestnut, a Gothic Revival masterpiece designed by famed architect Ralph Adams Cram, opened more than a century ago. Since its first worship services in 1912, the church has played host to numerous cultural and spiritual gatherings of importance alongside its weekly proclamation of scripture and its robust outreach to people – both the well-heeled and the down-on-their luck – in the heart of the near north side of the city.
On a windy evening in late May at an event labeled as a “Story Table,” an ethnically and generationally diverse group of four clergy persons and two academics gathered at Fourth Presbyterian Church for a conversation about an urgent subject both to the city of Chicago grappling with its escalating gun violence and to the country as a whole navigating post-presidential election trauma. As I sat in the circular gallery, one of about 40 invited guests, I had the strong sense that this conversation taking place in the middle of the room was perhaps as historic as the building in which we sat.
“Faith in a Culture of Fear.”
What does one have to say to the other? Or does faith have anything at all to say to a culture – a world – gripped by fear?
Stephan Bauman, author of Break Open the Sky: Saving Our Faith from a Culture of Fear, would have been a great additional conversation partner for that historic Story Table. The table participants’ questions were precisely the same as those that Bauman, who previously authored Possible (Multnomah, 2015) and co-authored Seeking Refuge (Moody, 2016), has turned his attention to in his new book.
“We are at our best not when we turn our backs, demand our rights, and talk of building walls but when we welcome the refugee, the sojourner, the immigrant,” Bauman, former president of World Relief, a church-based international relief and development agency, writes in the book published by Multnomah two days prior to the Story Table gathering at Fourth Presbyterian. “We are at our best – as a people, a church, a community, and a nation – not when we fear but when we love with gentle strength.”
I can see the Story Table participants nodding in agreement. But how do we get from where we are to that ideal? What is our route to that hoped-for destination?
Reading Bauman’s book would be a good place for us to begin.
Break Open the Sky draws its title from a passage in the Walter Mosley novel Blue Light (Little, Brown Publishers, 1998) where he wrote:
“We are not trapped or locked up in these bones. No, no. We are free to change. And love changes us. And if we can love one another, we can break open the sky.”
As I read Break Open the Sky even in the midst of more shattering news from Syria and Portland, Manchester and Sicily, I was convinced that Bauman’s dream is not a pipe dream; assured that we – individuals, communities, nations, the world – can change, and that love is a key. But I was also convinced that “we must pursue this call together, not alone, within the community of faith, as broken and disillusioned as we maybe be,” as Bauman writes.
Divided into three sections labeled Truth, Love and Risk, the nine chapters of Break Open the Sky combine artful exegesis of the Sermon on the Mount alongside copious stories from Bauman’s work in places all around that world including Cambodia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Washington, D.C., and sailing aboard the Mercy Ships fleet doing ministry with his wife, Belinda.
In the book’s first section, Bauman examines the central teachings of Jesus and suggests that they are more relevant in our “post-truth culture” than ever before. A chapter in this section titled “Kissing the Crucible” provides one of the more powerful, illuminating explorations of the problem of suffering – and the fear it instills in the hearts of the suffering and those close to them – that I’ve read in contemporary literature in some time. Here, Bauman briefly but poignantly shares about the death of his sister Brenda, a U.S. Army veteran, and in doing so, establishes additional personal credibility to speak to the problem of pain.
The book’s middle section on love calls Christians to rise to the biblical call of love and justice and to a different way of living in a world increasingly bereft of love.
And the last third of the book on risk and what Bauman calls “that other F word” – failure – provides a compelling exploration of the ways in which authentic Christian faith can cultivate a life we’ve dreamed about but have not had the courage to live. Bauman suggests that failure is often a catalytic mechanism for finding that life, and that we need to be willing to risk more than we do. This section of the book also has three of the most memorable pages in Break Open the Sky – pages that contain an extended poem Bauman wrote in the Congo about peacemakers titled “These Are the Ones.” It, alone, would be worth the price of this book.
Bauman describes the book as an “expedition into living a life of authentic faith, free from the fear that so often plagues our faith communities. We can either turn away,” he writes, “or choose to be brave. The journey is not for the faint of heart.”
I certainly agree. This journey of faith in the midst of a culture of fear is not for the faint of heart. But like the Story Table on that windy evening in late May, Break Open the Sky suggests there is hope. Faith can impact fear. It requires truth, love, and risk. I believe the Story Table participants would agree.
At the conclusion of the event at Fourth Presbyterian Church, during a portion open for dialogue with the 40 of us who served as the gallery of guests, a woman who teaches at a public school on the south side of Chicago stood up. With her voice trembling, she described the scene that she faces daily – boys and young men who she said “have no faith and have no fear. They don’t care if they die, and they don’t care if they gun down someone else. They have no fear. And there is no faith.”
The emotion and power of her voice were palpable in the room. One of the academics, an African American like the woman who had just spoken, responded with empathy, understanding, and words that affirmed the reality she faces daily. “But there is still faith,” he went on to say. “I see it every week among the young people who come to my church on the south side. It’s there, I promise you.”
She slipped out of the gallery before I could get to her, so I have no idea how she responded to the academic’s reply. But I hope she felt both affirmed in her pain and encouraged that maybe, just maybe, there are people – the young, and the old – in her neighborhood who can break open the sky with love.
Jeff Crosby is publisher at InterVarsity Press in Downers Grove, Illinois. He is the editor and compiler of Days of Grace through the Year, a collection of meditations drawn from the writing of Lewis B. Smedes. He and his wife, Cindy, reside in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.