A Feature Review of
Good and Beautiful and Kind: Becoming Whole in a Fractured World
Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
Goodness, beauty, and kindness are rarely found in abundance. That lack seems to have grown, the cracks in our world becoming clearer as anxiety, depression, and public anger escalate. Pastor and author Rich Villodas addresses this problem directly in Good and Beautiful and Kind. He seeks wholeness both inside and out, considering both the personal struggles and the broader public problems that lead to the breakdown of our world. Wishing to overcome division and hurt, he takes a calm, patient approach to spiritual formation, developing a biblical framework and process to allow us to find wholeness in ourselves and within our communities.
Villodas initially addresses the problem with a diagnosis, sorting out what’s gone wrong. He takes his approach (and the book’s title) from the Langston Hughes poem “Tired.,” where the poet suggests cutting the world in two to understand the source of the problems rather than simply waiting on the world to become good and beautiful and kind (xxii). Hughes wrote most directly about racial injustice, but the points apply across our fractured society and broken lives. Villodas doesn’t offer lofty idealism to describe a wonderful world; instead, he digs into the diseased heart of the issue and, understanding that, moves on to the approaches that can bring us restoration.
Our ultimate problem, as the cliché version might put it, is a sin problem. Villodas brings a smart slant to this idea, explaining, “At its core, sin is failure to love” (3). He sees a need to both name and reframe sin in order to move toward a more beautiful life. Rather than dwelling on morality or an ethical code, he considers – following Augustine and others – the way that sin leads us to turn in on ourselves. Cut off from others, we pull toward envy, selfishness, and the like, limiting our ability to love and to connect (hence the fractured world). While it’s Christ’s work that grants us freedom, we can practice the spiritual discipline of confession to begin to move out of this inward turn.
Villodas also reminds us that battles are not with each other but with unseen powers and principalities. The topic remains a complicated one, so he distills his definition down to: “Powers and principalities are spiritual forces that become hostile, taking root in individuals, ideologies, and institutions, with the goal of deception, division, and depersonalization” (28). Villodas works through the pervasiveness of these powers as well as their effects before explaining their ultimate defeat when Jesus used “the strongest substance known to the universe: sacrificial love” (47). The powers may have been overcome by Christ, but their effects persist, necessitating our participation in Christ’s work and our application of the armor of God. Both knowledge and application are necessary, and Villodas thinks through both parts of our response.
These two topics cover both the internal and external problems in a fallen world, and Villodas explores the fallout in considering our trauma, an almost inherent part of a world beset by sin and the powers. Here, the great strength of Villodas’ writing (apparent in The Deeply Formed Life, too) becomes apparent. He writes with a deeply pastoral heart. While he’s clearly a well read theologian who can draw on practically any tradition, he writes to serve and to heal. As we make sense of our shame and our stories, we do so with the guidance of a reliable counselor. Villodas is vulnerable without oversharing, and his commitment to both God and his congregation remains apparent; his books are an outgrowth of that passion.
With that groundwork in place, he can turn to spiritual repair. The middle third of the book focuses on ways we can enable the formation of the good, beautiful, and kind within us. His subtitle clues us in to a key point: we need to do the interior work of becoming whole ourselves in order to go out in the world. The book doesn’t seek to change the world by pointing out its flaws and casting blame, but to help us to grow into our fullness in Christ. Three key disciplines aid this growth: contemplative prayer, humility, and practicing presence.
None of these activities require a particularly ascetic approach to faith, and Villodas calls us to be “everyday mystics,” or “some who takes the radically available presence of God seriously” (83). That attitude can allow us to be shaped in and for love. Villodas starts with prayer, which “is not about throwing holy words at God: it is about embracing a new way of seeing” (74). Part of that new way of seeing involves a proper recognition of humility as something more akin to “lowering one’s defenses” (94). Letting down our guard – having no false self to protect – moves us to wholeness, and Villodas nimbly illustrates this point with a reading of the story of Naaman in 2 Kings. He similarly uses Biblical stories (sometimes in less familiar ways) to discuss the practice of a calm presence. With both scriptural and personal stories, Villodas sets the reader on a path toward wholeness.
The final third of the book looks at the way this beautiful way becomes embodied in actual life. At no point does Villodas suggest the challenges of forgiveness, conflict, or justice will be easily resolved. Reconsidering the value of forgiveness changes us as it breaks the damaging lens we look through when we’re trapped in unforgiveness. As we work through personal and public grace, we will have our struggles, but we can abide in God for our strength. We can also keep the work of healing in the right perspective: “We are not called to fix the world but to faithfully respond with the resources, strength, and love we have.” In Christ, we can cultivate those resources and embody a shocking grace.
With Good and Beautiful and Kind, Villodas has written a truly pastoral book, one that inspires individual spiritual growth and encourages that change to permeate the world. With a mix of diagnosis, prescription, and everyday mysticism, he shepherds his readers along a journey well worth undertaking.
Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.