Book review: “Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear”

In Sunday’s sermon, I referenced this book.  This is an updated book review (I read the book and wrote the original review in 2009). Scott Bader-Saye, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2007), 169 pages We live in a fearful world. There is the treat of terrorism. On the medical front, we fear cancer, Ebola, AIDS and other diseases. In our unstable economy, we fear unemployment and worry about losing our investments. There is always the fear of violent crime. All we have to do is to watch the evening news and we’re reminded of the danger lurking in the shadows. Will we or someone we love be the next victim? Although living fearlessly is foolishness and not a good option, Bader-Saye suggests there are theological problems created us being overly obsessed with fear. He doesn’t suggests that fear is a vice; instead, he explores how “excessive or disordered fear can tempt us to vices such as cowardice, sloth, rage and violence” (26). For Christians, living too fearfully destroys our ability to trust in God and to love others and to practice basic Christian virtues: hospitality, peacemaking and generosity (29). In his closing appendix, Bader-Saye notes that we need a better theology, not a political theory, to overcome fear. (154). Bader-Saye begins his book with a chapter exploring “fear for profit.” Quoting Al Franklen, he builds upon his idea that instead of a liberal or conservative media bias, the one we should be most concerned with is the profit bias (16-17). Fear sells and the past few decades (especially since the FCC deregulation of broadcasting in the 1980s) the demand on news shows to create a profit and to boost ratings have lead to more sensational and shocking news coverage, which often unnecessarily increases our fear. Numerous examples are citing in support of his theory. We worry about toxic residue in food when far more people die from an inadequate diet. We fear little known illnesses or operating room accidents while ignoring other more tangible things we can do to protect our health. We believe we live in a more dangerous world than in the past, but those of us in the West actually live much longer than our grandparents and great-grandparents. In the 1990s, when violent crime rates were falling, most people felt crime was out of control. Our elected leaders run campaigns of fear: “if you can’t woo voters, scare them” (19). Even the church isn’t immune to this obsession. Without naming names, Bader-Saye reminds us of how “religious groups are particularly vulnerable to the kind of demagoguery that creates and capitalizes on fear” (20). Although much of this book is devoted to fear in a macro-sense (especially in the political realm and in relationships between nation/states), Bader-Saye also notes the role fear plays in our personal lives. Perceived fear has even changed the way we parent as the emphasis shifts from “good parenting” to “safe parenting” (13). Fear also impacts our relationships. One who fears abandonment will have a hard time risking love, for if one does not love, one will never know abandonment. One who fears rejection may have a hard time trying something new. In an attempt to protect our hearts, we shield ourselves from that which we most desire (45). This book has much to say about international politics. Out of fear, preemptive strikes against an opponent are often prescribed. However, what defines the threat and the politics of preemptive strikes leads us down a road to where the only way to be safe is to eliminate all who could potentially be an enemy. This philosophy obviously has problems. Bader-Saye suggests that one way to control fear is to have faith in God’s providence, but he also notes that too often a politician invokes providence “as a divine rubber stamp for human ideologies and interest” (120). In a study of George Bush’s State of the Union Addresses in 2003 and 2004, he notes how in the first speech, Bush claimed that God’s providence was hidden, but in 2004 was willing to link the Iraq war with providence. (122). Bader-Saye also explores pacifism and just war (126f), as well as economic philosophies. I felt he came down a little hard on Adam Smith, whom he described as having the “perfect economic philosophy for the modern age-all the calories, none of the guilt” (136). He links Adam’s “invisible hand” of the market place with providence, saying that Smith’s philosophy gave us a providential excuse not to be generous (137). Reclaiming the original view of providence will help calm our fears as we trust in a good God. But providence is often misunderstood. Too many people see it “as a guaranteed protection plan [which] is to mistake both the real contingencies of life and the kind of power God chooses to use in guiding the creation to its goal” (89-90). We do a disservice to God and to others when we propagate the myth that our troubles are the result of our sinfulness and that following Jesus will take them all away. Such a belief isn’t even Biblical as both Job and Jesus point out. Bader-Saye draws heavily upon popular culture to illustrate his points. He quotes from all kinds of musicians, from Bono to Tim McGraw to Dashboard Confessionals (alternative rock). He draws upon many varieties of literature, from plays and movies. Theologically, he draws heavily from Thomas Aquinas, but also from John Calvin and Karl Barth and others. Although in discussion of the policy of ore-emptive strikes necessitated much discussion of George Bush’s policies (the book was published while he was still President), when discussing the role fear plays within the political process, he doesn’t limit himself to bashing just one political party, but made it clear that both political parties are guilty (19). He gives us a lot to think about in this short book. Each chapter concludes with a series of questions for the reader to ponder. For me, this has been an important book and has caused me to do a lot of thinking. The questions would make it a good book for a small group to study. A few quotes: On listening to the flight attendant’s instructions: “I’ve heard it many times before, but this time I could not help but hear ‘first secure your own mask’ as a kind of motto for the new ethic of safety.” (28) “I used to think that the angels in the Bible began their message with ‘Do note be afraid’ because their appearance was so frightening. But I have come to think differently. I suspect that they begin this way because the quieting of fear is required in order to hear and do what God asks of us.” (59) “Even the darkness cannot rob our lives of purpose, since ultimately our purpose is not constructed but received.” (86) “The political search for security today relies on the conventional power that comes from strength and wealth. But if we believe the biblical witness, that kind of strength is no strength at all.” (92) God draws history to its proper end not by conventional power (that is, control and domination), but by entering the fray of human history and transforming it from within. Jesus reveals to us a God who refuses to make the world out right by violently enforcing the good. To do so would be to betray the good by betraying peace. God’s ways are not the ways of the world. God is not a ‘superpower.’ God does not swoop in to rescue when things get really bad.” (93) “This is part of the intention of terrorism, to create a climate of fear that poisons ordinary human relations with suspicion.” (103) “Believing that Christians are called to be peacemakers does not necessarily mean that one must be a pacifist, but it does mean that one always begins with a presumption for peace and a very limited set of circumstances in which that presumption can be overruled by tragic and just use of force.” (118)


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