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David Zahl – Low Anthropology [Feature Review]

Low AnthropologyLiberation and Lower Expectations

A Feature Review of

Low Anthropology: The Unlikely Key to a Gracious View of Others (And Yourself)
David Zahl

Hardback: Brazos Press, 2022
Buy Now: [ IndieBound ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Joel Wentz

I used to work with a worship leader who would regularly incorporate some version of the following prayer in between corporately-sung verses:

“Lord, we come to you this morning as broken, wretched sinners. We have nothing good in us. We are but worms, utterly lost, and hopelessly in need of your grace.”

To be clear, this individual is far from the only church leader I’ve heard confidently espouse this rock-bottom view of humanity. I’ve bumped into it so frequently (typically in low-church, quasi-Reformed, evangelical spaces) that I’ve determined it needs a label of its own, what I have come to refer to as “butt-worm anthropology.” (You know, because “we are but worms…”)

I’m still waiting for this terminology to catch on.

Like any extreme view, it provokes reactionary pendulum-swings. In my own journey of faith, I’ve been fascinated, and occasionally compelled by, thinkers like Richard Rohr or Danielle Shroyer who put forward a corrective to the “butt-worm” approach, namely that of “original blessing.” Humans were created to bear the imago Dei, after all, and were pronounced “very good” before the incursion of sin. Surely we need to recover that way of thinking, lest we succumb to an overly depraved, cynical view of ourselves that obscures the high calling and beautiful vocation of being human in God’s creation.

There are undeniable truths here. Furthermore, these arguments can be refreshing and a needed corrective for those of us who have been immersed in the type of low-church settings I describe above. Nevertheless, like anything, they can be taken too far. The indelible presence of sin, and especially humanity’s inability to purify itself, must be reckoned with.

Thankfully, David Zahl has stepped in, providing a winsomely argued corrective-to-the-corrective with Low Anthropology. Also thankfully, he has given me a better term to use than “butt-worm” (and I promise that’s the last time I’m going to write that). “There is an inherent God-given dignity to every creature on the planet. This side of eternity, however, goodness has been distorted, such that it often takes the form of inner conflict and self-centeredness. You might even say that the imago Dei is less a picture of what we are now than of what we will be then (Col. 1:15)” (124, emphasis added).

Seasoned with the perfect amount of humor, deep cultural fluency, and a breezy style, Zahl clearly knows he is contending for a counterintuitive notion: that a “lower” vision of ourselves is actually what leads to liberation, joyful anticipation of how one could grow and change, and even love for the other.

“This is the great irony of low anthropology: what sounds insulting is actually liberating, and what sounds liberating at first is actually oppressive and embittering. . . [Low anthropology] shifts a person’s hopes from their own internal resources (willpower, discipline, natural energy level) to external possibilities. It opens a person to the outside world, to the possibility of love and the surprise of grace” (18, 22).

Zahl’s tripartite account of low anthropology, in which he discusses the reality of our “limitations,” “doubleness,” and “self-centeredness” is persuasive and utterly relatable. In each chapter, I found myself pausing to reflect on times in which I acted precisely in the ways he describes, by attempting to ignore my limitations, denying my own double-minded and conflicting desires, or simply putting myself at the center of my universe. What’s more, I was repeatedly “cut to the heart” as I recalled moments in which I contemptuously judged others for the very same behaviors. It’s not too dramatic to say reading Zahl’s account provoked my own repentance, and because of his gentle tone, a joyful repentance. This is how we react to good news.

And Low Anthropology truly is good news, for every reader, but especially so for those of us who work in ministry. I may be speaking primarily for myself (though I suspect that is not the case) when I confess that these anxious, polarized, and troubled times have only been exacerbated by my own operative “high” anthropology: my unspoken expectations that most of my congregants will generally behave well, subsume their desires for the common good and never commit to things they cannot follow through on. “When I no longer expect myself or others to be consistent or consistently admirable, I might stop resenting them for failing to be so” (162). In a cultural moment in which upwards of 40% of pastors are apparently contemplating resignation, this reminder could not be more salient. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that correcting our anthropology could be the key for many pastors to stay in the vocation for the long haul, and this is crucial, because the healthy local church, equipped with a Zahlsian low anthropology, is precisely where I want to be.

“A church with a low anthropology is a place to bring your failures and your shame. It is a place to lay those things down, to hear about second chances and third chances and fourth chances. It is a place to go and not be turned away no matter how overwhelming your limitations are, by what forms your self-centeredness has expressed itself, or how much damage your doubleness has done. Even more than a place to come together, it is a place to fall apart. And there is always room for a few more faces” (197).

May it be so.

 

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Joel Wentz

Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com


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