Featured Reviews, VOLUME 12

Chris Nye – Less of More [Review]

Calling us out of Babylon

A Review of

Less of More:
Pursuing Spiritual Abundance
in a World of Never Enough

Chris Nye

Paperback: Baker Books, 2019
Buy Now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Joel Wentz
If you have been involved in the conservative-Evangelical expression of American Christianity during the past few decades, then you have likely been exposed to more than your fair share of short, popular-level, motivational books calling for the abdication of the “American dream” in favor of a more radical, committed life of discipleship. Such books as The Irresistible Revolution (Claiborne), Not a Fan (Idleman), or the aptly-titled Radical (Platt) come to mind. Setting aside the distinctives, merits, and possible shortcomings of any of those individual titles, a reader should be excused for growing a bit desensitized in the face of so many seemingly-similar arguments. An alarm that rings over and over again, no matter how urgent, can eventually become background noise. So, what if yet another book calling Christians away from the American “way of life” was published? And what if, perhaps even most surprisingly, you should read it?

That’s exactly the argument I’m going to make regarding Chris Nye’s new Less of More: Pursuing Spiritual Abundance in a World of Never Enough.

Nye’s eminently readable book is laid out in 3 sections. In the first, he succinctly presents the core of the argument: Christians in twenty-first century America must reclaim a “counter-narrative” that is in direct contradiction to the American narrative we have imbibed and been formed by. Nye calls this the “American Story of More,” and frames it in simple terms. This narrative begins with the “worship of growth,” which leads to isolation, in search of fame, in service of power, ultimately grasping for wealth (19). Before unpacking the proposed counter-narrative, Nye contends, with the help of statistics, that this story has led to a profound spiritual sickness in our culture. A thoughtful and nuanced discussion of “Sin” and “sins” buttresses his (admittedly bleak) portrait of a culture in a downward spiral and in need of saving, but somehow the writing never feels pessimistic. “I believe a good life – a truly abundant, thick, and rich kind of life – is available for every person on this earth. I just think it looks confusing and upside down when we first put it up against the common messages in American life.” (23) The real substance of the book comes in part 2, in which this “confusing and upside down life” is explicated.

The “Biblical Counter-Narrative” (19) is framed by pace > connection > obscurity > vulnerability > generosity. A chapter is devoted to each counter-narrative term, contrasting it to its counterpart in the American Story of More. For example, our assumption that “healthy things grow,” especially as it relates to church ministry and quantifiable numbers, is placed next to a careful discussion of pace in Jesus’ agricultural metaphors of the Kingdom. Nye contends that these metaphors contain important truths about the work of ministry, that it is necessarily slow, dependent on outside forces, hard work, and produces unique results. “We cannot abandon the soil for the microwave.” (67-70)

Nye’s discussion of obscurity versus fame is particularly prophetic. “Fame is the condition of being known and celebrated by many people based on what we have done.” An entire theological and pastoral treatise could be unpacked from that one statement, and as Nye helpfully adds, “With this broad definition, each of us, when honest, should be able to locate ourselves within it.” (95, emphasis original) Without ever lapsing into a defeatist tone, or villainizing “the Internet and Social Media” in a lazy way, Nye manages to point to the ways uncritical Internet use feeds the flames of our quest for fame:

We’ve constructed monuments of ourselves: profiles and personal websites and feeds that are all about us, serve us, and (in our minds) glorify us. The internet is a never-ending echo chamber of our own preconceived notions about the world, filled with advertisements based on our search history and clicks, right next to a feed forged from an algorithm that has a PhD in our personal online behavior. Online, the world actually does revolve around us. Our phones and technology do not serve us, they worship us. (97)

Again leveraging images from Jesus’ teaching, this vision of fame is contrasted with the theme of “hiddenness,” whether leaven in dough, treasure in a field, a pearl in a shell, or a seed buried in the ground. Nye points to the great Henri Nouwen as a lived example of obscurity chosen over fame. But the “Story of More” doesn’t end with achieving fame. Rather, Nye argues, we are encouraged to secure fame to establish power (in contrast to vulnerability), and power is encouraged ultimately to find wealth (rather than generosity).

Every chapter in this section is lucid and thought-provoking, and to my mind, worth the price of the book alone. Some may take issue with the contention that the American telos is ultimately wealth, but I found Nye’s case persuasive. As someone who has been critical of the so-called “American Dream” for as long as I can remember, I still found myself unsettled and convicted in nearly every chapter. For that, I am deeply thankful to Nye’s unique voice.

In the third and final section, Nye begins to unpack the implications of his argument. And he does so in a sober-minded way. As he admits, we must die to the American Story:

This surrender comes with many implications. We will not own the kind of homes we dream of, because we have one awaiting us in heaven. We will not build up massive amounts of wealth in a diversified portfolio reaching global markets all earning us a kind of profit, because we have a different treasure to pursue. We will not reach for power and control in our companies, churches, and organizations, because we know any power we hold is under the Almighty, leading us to value truth more than authority. (160)

This is neither an empty, pie-in-the-sky emotional appeal, something any call for conversion is susceptible to, nor a dreary and depressed admittance that we should live this way because Jesus said so (even if we, secretly really don’t want to).

Perhaps there have been so many books written on this topic precisely because we need prophets like Nye to continue calling us out of Babylon and into the abundant life of less. Perhaps the seductive power of the American Story of More is such that we will need these books for years to come. I, for one, am grateful for Nye’s clarion call to follow Jesus in laying down what we have, even our very lives.

Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith

"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities
and the life of the church." 

-Karen Swallow Prior

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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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