Thursday, May 05, 2011

book review: Revise Us Again

I recently ordered a book by Frank Viola called Revise Us Again: Living From a Renewed Christian Script. The agreement was that I would get a free copy in return for reviewing it here on my blog (thanks to Speak Easy bloggers). Good deal, right? I had read bits and pieces of Viola's writing before - most of it I found to be prodding and often provocative rhetoric that sought to point the church in a more authentic and biblical direction. There were several glowing endorsements of the book in the email that notified me of the book's availability for review, so I took the bait.

What follows are my candid and honest opinions. You need not agree with my assessments and thoughts, but I offer them here for your consideration. First, let me say that Viola is by all indications a lover of Jesus dedicated to the purity and authenticity of the Church. That's a good thing. He hits his stride in a few places on this theme of revision: in chapter 6 he uses personal experience and numerous examples from the Bible as well as influential historical figures to develop very helpful delineations of the reality of God's presence. These are clear, concise, and serve to clarify much of the confusing language we often hear on this topic (briefly, here are his 4 distinctions: God as actually present with his people, a perceptible sense of God's presence, setting one's mind and heart actively on his presence, and the unnoticed but ever-present consciousness of God's presence).

The afterword is chock full of scriptures which illustrate the point Viola has been trying to make in the preceding 10 chapters: that our life script must come from our identity in Christ, and all actions and attitudes should naturally flow out from this realization. Those are the really good parts of the book.

Sadly, much of the rest of this easy-to-read volume finds Viola vacillating between being too general and then offering overly detailed, specific scenarios; the result is that much of the book is hard to identify with unless you are an American who has been steeped in a variety of the contemporary Christian worldviews prevalent in the USA. He assumes that we share many of his experiences, but it is just not so, Frank. He also begins most every chapter with neat and negative categories of what is wrong with current Christian thought and practice. All of us have a religious heritage which has conditioned us towards these unhelpful and inadequate mindsets, he assumes, and I venture to say that this assumption is too narrow.

No doubt the audience that he is writing for (Bible-belt or cultural Christians looking for a fresh and authentic perspective, perhaps?) will find much of what he says helpful. That's good! But unfortunately, Viola's main weakness is his failure to follow the very principle that he is putting forth: that it all begins with our true identity in Christ. Again and again, he begins addressing an issue by drawing lines such as those between libertines and legalists; he makes boxes and then herds what he calls charismatics, quoters, and pragmatics into them. None of them are getting it right, of course. Much of the time Viola uses a deconstructionist methodology which, at least in my opinion, fights against his main theme of changing how we think about who we are. While he purports that all must start with Christ, he seldom does.

Some of the generalities that I found irksome (sorry, Frank) were that Viola tends to make sweeping assumptions like "a large portion of the Christian world today has neglected a number of vital elements of the gospel" (page 58). There is no support for or explanation of statements such as this. Also, there is no definition or clarification of many of the terms he uses such as fundamentalist and literalist and we are left to assume that he is using them in a rather loose, colloquial sense.

Viola draws on a rather broad pool of references for this small book, and unfortunately, seems not to have done his research on a number of them. He is not careful with words either, sometimes choosing a clever turn of phrase over an informative and clarifying one. At one point he has a fictional stereotypical figure refer to "the subjective soup of mysticism" and becoming "lost in the sauce" (page 48). A very evocative word picture, yes, but as a student of mysticism, I can authoritatively say that it is not an accurate or informed one, even if it was coming from a fictional character. At another point when he is talking about old wineskins versus new wineskins, he states that "the new wine is always better than the old wine" (page 113). I have never heard a wine connoisseur utter those words, in fact, they all pretty much say just the opposite. Perhaps Viola is referring to a spiritual principle here, but he never explains it, so the phrase just leaves one puzzled because it is so counter-intuitive.

When Viola concentrates on the centrality of Christ, the book flows wonderfully and inspires the reader to let all of life be moored to this simple truth. However, when he spends page after page chopping contemporary Christian experience and culture into bite-sized pieces and analyzing their lack of nutritional content, the theme gets lost. Perhaps a kind but rigorous editor might have helped him keep on topic as well as take more care to exemplify his theme. The book would be much better served if it were characterised by more renewing language (as the title suggests) instead of being so focused on deconstruction.

Thanks for the read.

This is a picture of my copy of the book and the requisite reading snack.

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