A Feature Review of
Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Beyond the Baggage of Western Culture
Reviewed by Jamie A. Hughes
In Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” he describes teaching students how to read and appreciate verse. He does so using a series of sensory images, describing a poem as a beehive, a darkened room, and even a lake on which to waterski. However, the students are having none of it. Instead, they want to “tie the poem to a chair with a rope / and torture a confession out of it. They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.”
Sometimes, that is what faith feels like, too. Rather than revel in mystery or experience it wide-eyed in amazement, we reduce Christianity to a list of dos and don’ts. The Bible, a source of wisdom and narratives to savor, becomes a pastel self-help book filled with heartfelt good advice, absolutely without teeth.
We also have a nasty habit (at least in my current denomination) of grinding scripture to a pulp beneath our scrutiny—analyzing each word to ensure our theological understanding is without blemish. As a result, attending church has begun to feel like one more thing to check off the weekly to-do list for me, right there between grocery shopping and picking up the dry cleaning. Yes, my pastor is preaching “Christ and him crucified,” but the narrative feels threadbare and tired, much like I do.
Mandy Smith, in her new book Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Beyond the Baggage of Western Culture, makes a compelling argument as to why this is the case. She maintains that Western culture and the Christian faith have become entangled, so much so, in fact that the former is influencing the latter to a dangerous degree. Rather than simply dwelling securely in our salvation and resting in God’s boundless strength, we strive to think and do everything on our own. “We do kingdom things in empire ways,” she writes, “which doesn’t look like good news.”
The childlike faith Christ calls us to is often uncomfortable, especially for people like me who pride themselves on being tough, independent, and totally self-sufficient. We do many things well, never betraying our emotions or asking for help, and refusing to give in to any impulse that will leave us looking foolish in front of fellow adults. Childish things belong to children, we reason. Best to leave it back in the land of make-believe. However, when we cut ourselves off this way—when we don’t engage life with our whole selves—we exist rather than thrive. Worse still, we present an impoverished gospel to the world. But that doesn’t mean we are a people without hope. Far from it. It simply requires a change of heart and mind. “To enter the kingdom,” she writes, “we’ll need to remember how to do kingdom things in kingdom ways once again. This will mean embracing story, substance, mystery, and a different kind of authority.”
Smith makes the argument that we must engage in three practices if we are to return to a more childlike way of faith and live into the truth of our humanness: rest, receive, and respond. The first, rest, is a topic much ink has been spilled over in recent years, but for her, it isn’t simply stepping back from the grind. Her understanding of what it means to rest in God came in the form of a perfect V of geese that flew over her head one afternoon. They didn’t plan anything or measure the distance between one another to make sure everything was just so. Instinct led them to the ideal aerodynamic formation.
If we are resting, as humans are meant to do, we can achieve that level of effortlessness. And even when we are busy, that stillness can remain with us, which frees us in so many ways. Smith writes, “We begin to do our work with an awareness that we’re not making this world but joining God in the work of remaking it. The mental, physical, and emotional restoration we gain from resting is only part of the point. The habit helps us rest from our own striving toward deity.”
Once we rest, we can receive whatever wisdom or blessing God has in store. His presence is everywhere, after all. He’s speaking to us through countless mediums, but we have become desensitized to most, if not all of them. It is in rest that “we receive insight, images, prompts, words of encouragement, Scripture, songs, mountaintop moments” and even “sleep or tears or even silence, all of which are gifts from God.”
Once we have received, it is then our sacred task to respond. However, this looks very different for each one of us. It may not be tidy. It may even be uncomfortable and a little embarrassing. That’s where childlike faith comes into play. Children are whole, integrated people. They haven’t yet learned to fragment themselves like we have as adults. Emotions and reason live side by side in their minds. The subjective and the objective aren’t pitted against one another. Instead, they are comfortable working together to make sense of things.
Western culture tells us certain traits (logic, rationality, objectivity) are to be prized over their “weaker” counterparts. It is our task to put them all back together, to develop the parts of ourselves the world has told us to hide away. Otherwise, Smith writes, “we can no longer be present in the place where God comes to meet us—in our very human hearts and bodies. Ultimately, a disembodied approach to theology is poor Christology. God’s greatest expression of truth was a human person.”
There is much more to Unfettered than I could discuss in a single review. In fact, the book is filled with so much energy that I sometimes felt like I was holding a water balloon stretched to the limit, one good bounce away from bursting in my hands. Other times, it seemed as if I was holding the leash of a particularly excited Golden Retriever and was going to have to run if I wanted to keep up. Smith discusses large, abstract concepts over the eight chapters of this book, something that doesn’t lead to tidy resolutions or easily reproducible spiritual practices. You must be willing to do the work, to engage in the processes she describes—knowing all the while that the results may be markedly different than what you’re expecting.
Unfettered isn’t the story of a completed journey, the memoir of a mystic who has somehow arrived. It is a collection of experiences, captured in a winsome and hopeful way, that makes you realize there is something better out there—a deeper faith, a richer way of living. Smith can’t give you the answers because she doesn’t yet have them all herself. With this book, she simply turns you in a different direction, pats you on the back, and says, “Now it’s your turn. Walk on.”