A Review of
Beautiful Resistance: The Joy of Conviction in a Culture of Compromise
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
It has become a cliche to say, in early 2021, that we are in “unprecedented times.” And yet, cliche or not, “unprecedented” still feels like an apt descriptor for our exhausted, politically-fractured, pandemic-ridden cultural moment. As a pastor, amidst zoom calls and managing the tensions of various congregants’ opinions about all things related to pandemic and politics, I have been frequently returning to the question, “What exactly should the church be right now? What should we be focusing on? Who should we be?” Jon Tyson, New York City-based pastor and church planter, has released a timely, winsome and passionately argued vision for what exactly the church can be in our time, unprecedented or not.
When I cracked open Beautiful Resistance: The Joy of Conviction in a Culture of Compromise, I must admit that I did so with some trepidation. I wondered if I was about to encounter a diatribe regarding how much America has “backslidden” in the laundry list of moral and cultural issues (sexuality, gender, et al.) that are frequently lamented in so much Christian publishing today. To my relief, that is not the book that Tyson has written. Yes, the subtitle includes the phrase “culture of compromise,” but this is not a book that provides culture war ammunition. Rather, Tyson’s focus is more on how the church can cultivate the “joy of conviction,” and truly be a compelling, beautiful presence in the midst of so much confusion and disorder in the current cultural landscape.
At the core of Tyson’s argument is an invitation to return to the core spiritual disciplines that have marked the life of the church through the centuries: worship, prayer, sabbath, fasting, hospitality and celebration. It is this positive, constructive focus (on what we can do) rather than primarily a negative or condemnatory tone that helps the book stay inspiring and forward-looking, even when Tyson does level critiques at both the church or the broader culture. As an example, in the chapter on sabbath-keeping (titled “Rest must resist Exhaustion”) Tyson admits,
“I often wonder whether this is why the church lacks credibility in our world. Maybe it’s not just our big scandals and cultural failures; maybe it’s something much smaller, more common, more deadly. Maybe it’s our exhaustion. Maybe we are just too tired to model agape love, too scheduled to show compassion, too distracted to pray, too much like the exhausted culture around us. (p. 48-49, emphasis added)
This fine balance of challenge, invitation, cultural critique, and compelling vision is threaded throughout the book.
Tyson is clearly a thoughtful and well-read individual, quoting and referencing such disparate sources as Bonhoeffer, Nietzsche, James Baldwin, Rob Bell, John Piper, Hannah Arendt, Marva Dawn and Henri Nouwen, among others. This consistently comes through in the nuanced way in which he critiques various elements of our culture, but also in how he urges readers to learn from secular thinkers. The strongest example of this is in the second-to-last chapter, and my personal favorite of the book, titled “Sacrifice Must Resist Privilege.” In this chapter, Tyson confidently steps into the cultural minefields of privilege, intersectionality, and critical theory, offering thoughtful definitions of each concept for the uninitiated reader. Again, Tyson has done his homework (referencing Kimberle Crenshaw in the section on intersectionality) and does not put up any “straw men” to quickly tear down. Rather, he considers what lessons the church might take from each of these areas of cultural theory, and points the reader towards the Jesus-ethic. “[Yet] Jesus redefined greatness as the distribution of our unearned cultural advantage on behalf of others. Rather than fighting over rights and responsibilities, Jesus calls us to redirect our privilege for others.” (139) Those well-versed in Critical Theory may not see anything shocking here, but I applaud Tyson’s decision to include such an important chapter in a popular-level book for a Christian audience, especially at a time in which simply mentioning a word like “intersectionality” can get you ejected from certain conversations in the evangelical milieu.
In sum, Beautiful Resistance is an accessible and inspiring book for those who may not have yet seriously considered what practicing spiritual disciplines may look like in our anxiety-ridden cultural climate. Admittedly, those who are currently engaged at a deeper level with the disciplines, or with thoughtful cultural critique, may not find anything new here, but this is not the intended audience of this book. As a pastor, I can easily imagine handing a copy to that volunteer small group leader who is feeling stuck and frustrated right now, or that individual who is overly defensive at any notion of “privilege,” or even as an enjoyable-to-read refresh on the importance of spiritual rhythms for a fellow minister leader who is feeling worn out and confused in the midst of this pandemic. As such, I am thankful for Tyson’s passionate and thoughtful voice, and his compelling vision for church in the midst of a hurting world.