Weakness as Strength

Weakness as Strength August 26, 2012



I received a free copy of inSignificant: Why You Matter in the Surprising Way God Is Changing the World to review as part of the Patheos Book Club, but was not subject to any limitations on my post.

I tend to read and review apologetic works (or totally off-topic ones) that may be of interest to anyone in my weird audience.  So, fair warning, inSignificant is written for Christians, and is probably not of interest to the non-Christian readers of the blog.  It’s also much cheerier than I’m used to. (But this is why you wouldn’t have me speak at a wedding; most people would rather have the “this is a joyous occasion” kind of thing I’d imagine Travis would say than my “Marriage is like Odysseus binding himself to the mast — a deliberate constraint on your life.”).  That means the book was a little hard for me to engage with, but may be better suited to people who are nicer than me.  But to get down to brass tacks…

Travis’s book is intended to show his readers the unexpected ways their lives and their struggles can be in accord with God’s plan.  Travis was a public school math teacher in New York City, and I thought the best parts of the book were about learning to manage his classroom.  I think he’s best when he’s coming at the question of how to serve God a little obliquely.  But there was one part where he’s discussing the character of God’s love more directly that I thought could make for interesting discussion.  Travis writes:

What if God visited to you today and said, “Here.  It’s all yours.  Everything.  I put it all under your feet.  Anything you want done.  The universe will be your servant.  Just speak and it will respond.”

…I bet you wouldn’t do what Jesus did… “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power.”  So he cured all disease, ended all suffering, erased all evil, wiped away every tear.  He answered all our prayers.  He stopped the nonsense and rebellion and asserted his lordship.

No.  Not this God.

“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power… so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

Love is what God is after and power has no power to prompt love.  So behold the Master of the Universe, the Ancient of Days, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies: Jesus Christ the Foot Washer.

Instead of giving worldly gifts, Travis wants to draw our attention to Christ giving the gift of himself and his service.  This gift has to happen at a human scale for humans to be able to respond with love.  You might feel very lucky when the tree knocked over in the storm just misses your house, but it’s as hard to be grateful to a person.  But when you’re in close contact, it’s impossible to ignore the relationship that service imposes.  (This is why I find Maundy Thursday so discomfiting).

And the use of the word ‘discomfiting’ should be a clue that I’m about to bring this back to the discussion of Sondheim’s Company.  For Bobby to progress, he needs to make himself vulnerable and unsafe.  We think of him transitioning into the role of servant, as Christ does.  A future Bobby, we hope, won’t still be able to be described as “Exclusive you! Elusive you!  Will any person ever get the juice of you?” as he is in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”

But, on Monday, I want to take this further, since I’m planning to discuss Passion, the other show included in my Sondheim double-header.  If Company ends with a choice to give oneself (albeit it to an as of yet unspecified beloved), Passion’s plot is driven by the difficulty of knowing of what to do when someone offers themself as a gift to you, unsolicited and possibly unwanted.

I’ll expand on this theme over the course of the week, but I wanted to preview it today, since I think it gets at the experience of the other side of the life of humble service that Travis is calling us to.  In the Gospel story Travis references, Peter bucks at the idea of accepting service from the Messiah, even though it’s just a more tangible sign of the great, undeserved gift that Christ is offering him.  Peter chafes under the weight of that gift.

So, hopefully, discussing Sondheim’s grotesque musical about love offered unsought can be an interesting lens through which to view any call to service and humility.  See you tomorrow!


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  • Do you think it was better than Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life? The book’s subtitle “Why you matter in the surprising way God is changing the world” reminded me of Warren’s book. I couldn’t stand more than a few chapters of that, but it sounds like inSignificant is a little better.

    • “The Purpose Driven Life” is such a good benchmark for intolerable Christian writing of a certain genre.

      That subtitle makes me shudder quite a lot because it reproduces both the “I know what God’s destiny for you is” and the “It is important to not be insignificant in the big picture” lines of thought so popular in North American media these days. Both of these lines make me feel like… well, there’s no need to be so graphic as to explain what they make me feel like. I don’t appreciate either of them, though.

      • Ohmygoodness someone slap me. The Purpose Driven Life, not “The Purpose Driven Life.” If only it had been short enough for quotation marks rather than italics.

        • I would have used italics myself, but I’m too lazy to learn the tags. I guess I really ought to get to that, though….

  • deiseach

    You have voiced precisely why I can’t read these kinds of books; they’re so chirpy! And upbeat, and perky, and optimistic – it must be the self-help element, because that seems to be the style. Presumably the publishers tell the authors to use this style to appeal to the widest audience.

    Or possibly I’m spoiled for these books because I was raised Catholic on stories of saints like the patron saint of “Domestic servants, homemakers, lost keys, people ridiculed for their piety, rape victims, single laywomen, waiters, waitresses”, St. Zita of Luca, whose life story is a long catalogue of (to quote Wikipedia) “For a long time, she was unjustly despised, overburdened, reviled, and often beaten by her employers and fellow servants for her hard work and obvious goodness”.

    It’s hard to write a cheery self-help book along those lines 🙂

    • Yeah. Those books strike me as a kind of lie, as if Christianity was supposed to make you happy all the time and only if you had enough faith you’d always be happy. Catholic spirituality is a great deal more true because it acknowledges, at the root, that we live at least sometimes in a “vale of tears.” Life is hard.

      So to this book and others: Where’s the death? Where’s the suffering? Without these, there is no Passion. It’s Jesus-flavored, at best. Just like orange soda is not orange juice, this watered-down syrup of a Gospel is more about the bubbles than the substance.

      • I agree that Catholic theology looks a lot more dismal than Protestant theology, and as far as that goes I find Catholic writing more tolerable. There are Protestants who do pull of the recognition of a vale of tears, but I’m struggling to think of any popular Protestant books, in print, that manage it. As usual, I’m thinking of some things Richard Beck has written on about Summer and Winter Christians and about cultic, humanistic, and therapeutic love (http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.ca/2011/10/triangle-of-love.html). Beck is probably a great place to start with these questions. I do think it’s worrisome that Protestant Christianity, especially American Protestant Christianity, has gone this way. But I don’t think that’s because of some difference between Protestant and Catholic theology so much as a difference between how they have been taken up culturally. (I point this out because I detect–and tell me if I’m wrong–a perhaps unintentional suggestion that Catholicism is homogenously pessimistic and therefore good while Protestant is homogenously optimistic and therefore not as good.)

        • deiseach

          Oh, I agree it’s culturally determined. Older Protestant writing would not have been so upbeat, and there’s a great deal of criticism from within Evangelicalism about the style of “Your Best Life Now” type books that treat the Gospel as a kind of self-help manual, where if you just follow these ten easy steps, you will be walking in victory, claiming the blessing, and overcoming all spiritual and temporal hardships. The ‘Prosperity Gospel’ message gets good, reasoned criticism.

          But the populist style of books do fall into the “Ten Easy Steps” model that has been taken over from the self-help, pop-therapeutic books out there. On the other hand, a more joyful style is not in itself an indicator of lack of content; it’s just that so much of this stuff is fluffy (I’m thinking of the “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books, one of which I tried to read, but when I took it off the shelf in our local library, I just couldn’t do it).

          It’s definitely more that something is lacking in my emotional makeup that I can’t find any good in what are usually sincere, if a bit too feel-good, anecdotes of family life (but I’m sorry, I just cannot believe that the guy who stopped to change your flat tyre was an angel sent from Heaven by God for that very moment. A good and neighbourly person, yes, and I’m glad to know that civility still exists but an angel – no.)

          • Oo, I was critiquing Ubiqutious, not you, if that’s what you thought. I’m glad you responded, though! I’m right there with you dispositionally!
            The best apologetics for the-guy-who-changed-your-tire-was-an-angel that I’ve heard is that “angel” is meant in the sense of “messenger of God” and not “seraphim.” So a flesh-and-blood human being, including an atheistic or, say, theistic Satanist one, could theoretically be an angel. That kind of makes the idea of angels uselessly general, though, because it means “any agent that happened to do you a solid, even accidentally.”

        • Never mentioned Protestantism. Mentioned “these sort of books” as opposed to Catholicism.

          Neither is Catholicism overly pessimistic as such. There are plenty of happy times, plenty of blessings. But no blessing is borne without burden!

      • leahlibresco

        There is a fair amount of suffering in the memoir sections. His teaching experience is awful and feels awful to little purpose, and Travis does go through a dark night of the soul. He wants to resign and then he feels God speaking to him to stay, and that makes him think more about how he is of use.

        • I appreciate it when writers or speakers cover the tough times, so many people are attracted to church by evangelists (normally an ex-drug addict or something) who have changed their lives, given them to God, & since then, everything is great & nothing goes wrong. To anyone listening with a critical mind it just sounds like a lie, but those who are in a bad place in their lives often fall for all the emotion surrounding evangelistic meetings(as the speaker ends of some emotional call to faith with “AMEN! AMEN! AMEN!” & everybody cheers). The problem is, two months in & the people are having various problems that life throws at them & they loose faith, but the evangelist still runs around with this, “I’ve saved so many” attitude. Bad stuff happens, God is there to help people, not to stop it from happening.

          • jscalvano

            Well, if I understand certain forms of protestantism then there is only a need to be “saved” once. This is very different than the Catholic call of constant conversion, graced especially through the sacrament of confession. Therefore, as fare as these evangelists are concerned they may very well believe they have “saved” these people because for a single moment of their live they gave themselves to Christ.

        • This is helpful, and I don’t pretend to have read this book, but the criticism was leveled at a pervasive genre more than anyone in particular.

  • god is love, like jesus himself said to thomas, in the parables, it was a metaphor dont take things so literally.. forget all the spooky stuff and focus on the good.. there metaphors, trying to scare you i guess probably not the best way to go about it but given the time period they were in maybe what was needed. lifes what you make it. your free to live jesus died for your sins and set you free of sin. he just wants you to be a good hearted person. and do to others as you would want done to yourself.

  • Mitchell Porter

    All these concepts are so mad, it’s hard to summon a response. It would make much more sense to suppose that Earth is a cosmic torture device, than to consider it the creation of a love-god.

  • Alex Godofsky

    What if God visited to you today and said, “Here. It’s all yours. Everything. I put it all under your feet. Anything you want done. The universe will be your servant. Just speak and it will respond.”

    …I bet you wouldn’t do what Jesus did… ”Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power.” So he cured all disease, ended all suffering, erased all evil, wiped away every tear. He answered all our prayers. He stopped the nonsense and rebellion and asserted his lordship.

    No. Not this God.

    Paging Epicurus…

    • “If he wants to and can [eliminate bad things], which is the only thing fitting for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?”* certainly is a question for God, not man. But I’ll give it a shot: he does not because love is what God is after, and because power is powerless to prompt love.
      * Lactantius, De Ira Deorum, 13.19 (Epicurus, Frag. 374: http://www.epicurus.info/etexts/epicurea.html)