Saturday, January 31, 2009

Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear (a book review)

I’m still backlogged, but wanted to get something up. This is a book that I found interesting and decided to do a review on it. My review may be a little rough; I’ll try to get back and edit it later. As for me, I’m doing well. I spent Saturday morning doing the dishwasher shift at Applebee’s! That was fun; especially since it was only one morning (I don’t think I’d like a steady diet of dishwashing). I wasn’t on their payroll, just a volunteer for a fundraiser for our mayor who has a serious battle with cancer. I’m looking forward to tomorrow night. Go Steelers!

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, 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 the fear what we do (154).

Bader-Saye begins his book with a chapter exploring “fear for profit.” Quoting Al Franklen (who’s possibility the new Senator from Minnesota), 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). Groups like Dobson’s “Focus on the Family,” Robertson’s “700 Club,” and Falwell’s “Moral Majority” all come to mind.

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 police of pre-emptive strikes necessitated much discussion of George Bush’s policies, when discussing the role fear plays within the political process, he didn’t limit himself to bashing just one political party, but made it clear that both political parties were 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. I recommend it.

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 suspension.” (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)


  1. It would probably make for a much shorter book (or none at all) but wouldn't it be easier to stop imbibing in the one thing that spreads fear the most: TV news?

    Unlike you, when I read, I don't want to think (with Eric Hoffer being an exception). I did that too much during school. Now, I'm looking for a complete get away.

  2. That "Fear for Profit" chapter sounds interesting. Shocking and breaking news always brings with it an element of fear. I rarely watch the news but catch the highlights.

  3. I have to agree with Murf that it sounds like way too much thinking going on while reading this book :) Though it does sound like he makes some good points.

    Hope the fundraiser was a success!

  4. There is a lot to think about on this 4-letter word. You did a great review and raised many issues worth pondering.

    You know what, I thought the Bible did say so that our troubles are a result of our sins. In fact, I thought the call for being a God-fearing Christian is the constantly theme throughout. Come on, even Rick Warren said that we are in trouble now (this crisis) because we sin.

  5. Murf, that's why you never got into Craig Child's book!

    Scarlet, the highlights can be even more fearful as they tease us to watch the "news we need to know"

    TC, even my light books cause me to think. I alway wonder if I should post reviews like this one--in some cases I've posted them in my Shelfari account but not here. I think the fundraiser was a great success, I'm not sure how much we raised (they didn't let dishwashers around the cash register!)

    Mother Hen: You're baiting me with the second part of your comment! Yes, some of our troubles are consequences of pecking in the wrong places, but not all of them. There's Job, and there's the time when Jesus was asked who'd sinned to cause a man to have been handicapped from birth and Jesus said "no one."

  6. That does seem like an intersting book. I take a very "live and let live" approach to my beliefs but I also don't think one should use God's name when declaring war *ahem* George Bush *ahem*

    NetChick set me.

  7. i will need to read this later - i am too tired from kayaking.
    Have a super Sunday, Go God!

  8. I agree with Murph about TV news, which is why I have all but given it up.

  9. Sounds like a very insightful book. Great review. And I will stop fearing a Cardinals win.

  10. Actually I like this post for every time I read it, I pick up something new. Well, of course Jesus has to say no one (w/ ref to the handicapped man) because that was from birth, so how could a baby sin before birth (unless you're talking about the past life, but that's Buddhism territory). So the comment from Jesus should not be used as a counter argument for the "fear" doctrine that is so apparent throughout the Bible, and Christianity in general.

  11. I read this several times and found it fascinating. I can channel Al Franken at will you know but prefer not to :)

    Your Jesus is a man of peace who cares about all people. James Dobson's not so much

    I don't really feel qualified to talk about the subject but that's never stopped me

  12. That's true. I did have to think a lot in that Craig Childs book. I'm sure that had something to do with my intense dislike of it.

  13. I might read that. I try to not be fearful as I don't think God intended us to live in fear. What is going to happen will happen and times have always been hard somewhere.

  14. Because of the profit motive in news, I watch very little, and believe even less. Fear is easier than love and we Americans love the easy button. A book dead on the mark.

  15. This one's going on the Amazon Wish list. Thanks for the heads up.


  16. What a fearful thing when one loses the desire to think and would rather be amused. An amused person is easily persuaded verses one who thinks for themself. E.g. our world today and their riots. I think greater than that of fear is the lust for something "more" and coupled with the fear of lack many make destructive decisions... rebellion, abortion, genocide- just to name a few..