“Toward a Hopeful Realism”
A review of
Faith Without Illusions:
Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint.
By Andrew Byers.
Review by Kevin Book-Satterlee.
We’ve all known them. Maybe we are them, or are recovering. Readers of The ERB look and embrace a Christian lifestyle on the periphery of pop-Christianity, which means we certainly interact with them. I was one, in seminary; as were many of my friends. Perhaps you are one today – a cynical Christian.
As a former college pastor at a Birmingham church and the leader of a local campus ministry, Andrew Byers — author of the new book Faith Without Illussions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint— has come across his share of cynical Christians. He admits to having been one himself. While it seems cool to be one of the disillusioned – those who “know better”– and not one of the delusional – those who follow pop-Christianity – for Byers, the way of cynical Christianity is not really following Jesus.
Byers begins his book by saying, “Most of us do not actively seek to embrace cynicism. We fall into it.” (5) Cynicism occurs when the veil is torn off – disillusionment. This is usually painful, having been confronted with a long-standing belief of God and the Church to find that the “rug gets violently jerked out from under [you].” (7) The disillusioned begin to move out toward the margins, often separating, not completely – not totally abandoning their devotion to Jesus – but far enough away from those deemed as delusional. Far enough away to not be hurt by the Church, but close enough to criticize it. The reader could think that Byers is setting up a defense for pop-Christianity with its self-centered, materialistic and often simplistic answers and culture, but he does not. He is in solidarity with the criticism of pop-Christianity, just not the separation and Church-mocking.
How does cynicism occur? Byers links it to the fall of idealism, be it the simple idealism of pop-Christianity that gets shattered when taking a closer look at reality. For me it was poverty in Africa and the Church seemingly doing little or nothing about it. It can also come from a social idealism. How many Christians have been passionately idealistic about God’s justice for the poor, to only find out how difficult this fight can actually be. They too get disillusioned and as a defense, become cynical, embittered and distastefully critical.
After defining cynicism and how it tends to come about, (especially with university Christians who can be so idealistic and then so often let down) Byers defines the arenas in which cynics often contend. Religiosity, experientialism and anti-intellectualism are some of the largest areas where a cynic-Christian finds incredible tension with pop-Christianity. This is especially true for young seminarians. Byers quotes Thelicke: “There is a hiatus between the area of the young theologian’s actual spiritual growth and what he already knows intellectually about this arena.” (97) They find a newfound intellect in studying scriptures, in theology and how it should be practiced, and there is a grand disconnect, even distrust of these intellectual pursuits among the more religiosity and experiential folk.
Worse yet, it seems that pop-Christianity is both too cultural and culturally irrelevant. The just-out-of-youth-group cynic is likely to find the Church terribly irrelevant to its culture. The studious, Ellul-reading seminarian will likely find the Church conformed to a fallen culture. In both ways the Church falls short and the cynic becomes critical. While in seminary at Duke, Byers pastored what some would call a blue-haired church. His section, “Learning From Mount Hermon Baptist Church,” in chapter 7 is a short case-study that adequately deals with the disillusionment of both cultural irrelevance and cultural assimilation.
Byers’s second half of the book draws from a reflections on the biblical narrative. Byers is studying for a PhD in New Testament at Durham University, and while he does not get too technical, he does an adequate job looking at the various potential cynics of the Bible, showing how they critique popular religion, but do not disengage in apathy as a cynic would. He writes, “The line between cynicism and hopeful realism will appear blurred at times. Distinguishing features include the direction and the source of the indignation and disappointment.” (120)
He begins first by looking at the prophets. This angry bunch is often a favorite of the cynics who draw heavily from the offensive and rebuking tone. Prophets spoke against idle religiosity and the detriment of injustice. But, as Byers notes, the prophets received their message from God and the prophets turned inward towards the fallen, delusional community. In a good learning picture Byers asks the cynics, Is the cynic, like Job, huffing at a distance with arms crossed? Or, is the cynic pleading with arms open? (131)
Byers then looks to wisdom literature, particularly Ecclesiastes. If there wasn’t anything more cynical it would be the refrain of the book – vanity of vanities. But is the intellectualism of the cynic producing true biblical wisdom? He writes, “Biblical wisdom is never divorced from a humble and godly disposition.” (142) As a seminary student I found myself often more like the “sage” who so wisely spoke, yet had no compassion, no humility for the people I criticized. Byers would call a lack of humility a lack of wisdom altogether.
A third biblical character Byers examines is the “tragic poet.” The writers of Lamentations and lamenting psalms seem to give rise to the critical, even incensed approach to God. Pain is a disillusioning catalyst and the poets of the Bible can recount pain and anger with the best of them. Surely this poetry gives credence to the cynic who feels justified at approaching God with indignation. “Can we subject God to…accusatory questioning?” asks Byers. (166) He responds affirming that we can ask God, maybe even pointedly, but “[b]efore we serve God a subpoena and summon his presence to hear our case, it would be wise to consider how God might respond.” (168) He turns to the final chapters of Job to demonstrate God’s sovereign response. He notes then, that while critical, the lamenting poets almost always managed some sense of praise in the midst of their anguish.
Finally Byers moves on to the account of Jesus. Here, according to Byers, is a guy who should be the most vindicated in being a cynic – powerful in ministry, yet despised by the people. God’s chosen one, yet at the end even He felt abandoned by God. But in obedience and love, Christ goes to the cross. Byers writes, “Jesus refused to distance himself from the messy issues of his people. He entered into their pain and misery, taking on their flesh, paying the taxes they had to pay and, beyond the work of any prophet before him, he ultimately took within himself even their sin.” (193, emphasis mine)
Byers contends here for a hopeful realism. Pop-Christianity must be criticized for both its irrelevance and assimilation. The delusional should come out of their over-experiential, anti-intellectual and religiosity delusions. But Byers writes this book demonstrating that the wounds of the cynic are no better than those they criticize. Humility and deep sacrifice through engagement is the way of the hopeful realist and the true-cynic saint. Seminarians and college/campus pastors ought to read this book. The Church cultural shift is opening cracks from which to peer through the walls of delusion, but they can lead to disillusion. We need hopeful realists bathed in biblical wisdom and humility. We need recovered cynics to engage the succeeding generation of potential Christian cynics and we need a critical engagement with the Church.
Kevin Book-Satterlee is a Latin America Mission missionary and graduate of George Fox Seminary. He works in missions recruitment and immersion missions training for young adults.
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