A Review of
When Everything’s On Fire:
Faith Forged in the Ashes
Reviewed by Rob O’Lynn
Being able to tell a good story is a significant accomplishment. One thinks of authors like John Steinbeck, Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison or Fyodor Dostoevsky or playwrights like Arthur Miller or August Wilson—artists who paint captivating tales with their words, tales in which we are transported to another plane of existence where we wrestle with the meaning of life in the safe confines of crisp pages or an illuminated screen. Living a story, however, is its own special kind of miracle. This is not merely telling the story, such as narrating Don Quixote’s charge against the windmills or Jekyll’s wrestling with his brutal alter-ego. This is bearing one’s soul—dark parts and all—before those who are in community with and those who we intersect with on the highway of life.
This unique expression of being wholly authentic is a rarity in our selfie-saturated and celebrity-centered world. Yet, it is something that minister Brian Zahnd strives to live each and every day. The founding minister of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri, Zahnd deftly blends theological scholar and mystic in his expression of the Christian faith. Following him on social media for any length of time, one will discover that he has an intense passion for scripture, church history, philosophy and the music of Bob Dylan. He is unapologetic in his theological and political positions– positions that have been forged in quiet study, along the crowded highway. Zahnd longs for the church to authentically express its commitment to God in Christ and through the Spirit. This longing is readily evident in his previous writings, most notably Sinner in the Hands of a Loving God, Beauty Will Save the World, Postcards from Babylon, and A Farewell to Mars.
When I saw the cover for his newest book, my mind immediately went to two memes that have become evergreen since March 2020. You probably know them; the first one is an African American woman with her hands on her knees and an inquisitive look on her face with the caption “Which chapter of Revelation are we in today?” The second is simply a dumpster rolling down a hill—fully ablaze. It is difficult not to think of something like this when you receive a book entitled When Everything’s On Fire in the mail. It is also easy to feel the existential clouds roll in and darken the mood of reading on a quiet afternoon with a fresh cup of tea and a soft rain falling outside. Instead, the drink is a stale and bitter paper cup of coffee and the setting is a noisy bus where a fight has just broken out.
Yet, such is not the case with Zahnd’s newest book (although I think he is a coffee drinker). Contained within the 175 pages, one finds a series of theological and philosophical meditations that reveals glimpses of light through the clouds. The stories interspersed throughout are real, honest, and humble, much like the author himself. One story that struck me profoundly is early in the book. Zahnd talks about being in Paris on the day when French philosopher Jacques Derrida died (9 October 2004). He recounts how he had purchased another copy of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and was reading it on the train when he struck up a conversation with a young Asian man. The question of Christian faith soon came up and Zahnd gently shared his faith in Christ and prayed for the young man before getting off at his stop. The heavens did not open and the waters were not parted. Yet Christ was made present in the life of one who had previously had no hope. Such is the tone throughout.
The book is divided into two parts. The first part is entitled “When Everything’s On Fire” (chapters 1-8). Here, Zahnd juxtaposes hope-starved philosophical stances, such as those espoused by Nietzsche and Derrida, against hope-filled theological stances, such as those demonstrated by Mary Magdalene and Alexander Solzhenitsyn (both of which are some of Zahnd’s more interesting reflections). In chapter four, Zahnd offers insight on how to deconstruct well, such as “don’t be afraid and don’t be ashamed” and “beware the pendulum.” Zahnd is building his concept of the “theological house,” the construct in which we will live and move and have our being. For it to be as solid as possible, we must be honest about what we believe and remodel where necessary. Deconstruction then, when done well, leads to reconstruction not renouncement, as is the current trend.
The second part is entitled “Faith Formed in the Ashes” (chapters 9-11). Here, Zahnd draws three lines in the proverbial sand. This may be overstating Zahnd’s intent, however the subtlety is certainly there. In chapter 9, Zahnd challenges the reader to embrace a mystical iteration of the Christian faith. In chapter 10, he exhorts the reader to embrace Ricoeur’s “second naiveté,” the return to a more simple reading of scripture once we have stripped the political agendas away. And in chapter 11, he calls the reader to not only believe in God but to dream of a church that practices the things of God in all it does. The book concludes with a meditation on Moses’s experience with the burning bush, challenging the reader to look for such an experience in her or his life.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with Zahnd. He expertly blends personal experience with pastoral and philosophical insight. It is clear that Zahnd truly lives the story that he talks so passionately about. If I had one critique about what Zahnd has offered here, it would be his insistence on adopting the mystical way of Christian faith. It is not the expression that I find unsettling but the insistence that it is the only true expression. Perhaps it is my upbringing in a more rational stream of Christianity (or maybe just too much Star Trek), however, I think it sells other expressions of authentic Christian faith short. Other than that—and his humble brag about how much scripture he uses (he does use a lot, which is good)—this book will refresh your soul in this time when everything seems to be on fire.
Rob O'Lynn is Associate Professor of Preaching and Ministry, Director of Graduate Bible Programs, and Dean of the School of Distance and General Education at Kentucky Christian University. He has served congregations in Arkansas, Texas, West Virginia and Kentucky. You can follow him @DrRobOLynn on Twitter or Instagram.