Sunday, 6 April 2008

Review of "Kingdom Triangle"

YepA review of Kingdom Triangle by J. P. Moreland, Zondervan 2007

Kingdom Triangle is an important book that doesn't really fit into any conventional categories. In this review I'll be treating it as belonging to the genre of church improvement books, most of which address church growth. However, Moreland's approach is very different, and this is a very philosophically strong book.

So, what's it about? Well, the cover has an extended subtitle, which aptly summarises the work: "Recover the Christian Mind, Renovate the Soul, Restore the Spirit's Power." As you would expect from the title and subtitle, there are three major thrusts to this work (three legs of a stool, as Moreland puts it). Each of these forms a chapter in Part 2, which is preceded by several chapters laying out the groundwork, called "Assessing the Crisis of Our Age."

In Part 1 Moreland uses his extensive philosophical nous to dig into the current situation in the Western world, and the status of the modern church. Moreland believes that the church is the hope of the world, and he views the evangelical church as, in many ways the most healthy of Western churches. However, as he works through the slow decay of the church from the Enlightenment on, it becomes clear that the church has really failed to properly respond to the changes in our culture.

Moreland uses the metaphor of a hunger for drama to describe the yearning that God has placed in everyone's hearts. He explains how real drama is only possible in a "thick" world, namely one infused with meaning. He then traces the way that naturalism has stripped away meaning, resulting in a terribly thin world, devoid of drama. He examines how postmodernism offers a terribly false hope, replacing real drama with fantasy.

This section is very well written, robustly researched, and an excellent summary of where our society is at this point in time. Moreland summarises it in Chapter 4 From Drama to Deadness in Five Steps. He traces this process through these five steps:
  • From Knowledge to Faith
    Moving from a worldview where spiritual knowledge was real and attainable, to one where there is no real knowledge, and faith has become the only way to hold onto matters of the spirit
  • From Human Flourishing to Satisfaction of Desire
    Tracing the move from good being a matter of character to it being a matter of pleasurable sensations
  • From Duty and Virtue to Minimalist Ethics
    Moving from an understanding of ethics based on real knowledge of what is good and true, including spiritually, to a point where no-one has access to truth, and so a minimalist ethic of "doing no harm" reigns
  • From Classic Freedom to Contemporary Freedom
    Moving from the freedom to do what is right to the freedom to do whatever one desires to do
  • From Classic Tolerance to Contemporary Tolerance
    Moving from being able to disagree with a person's ideas but still tolerate the person, to denying the option of disagreeing with ideas (and not tolerating people who disagree)

The goal of this section is to indicate the currents of thought that have been hostile to the Christian concept of a meaningful, significant world. Moreland clearly points out the terrible acidity of both naturalism and relativity, and makes it clear that Christianity is simply incompatible with such worldviews.

In part 2, he charts a way out.

The first, and strongest chapter of part 2, describes the reclamation of a truly Christian concept of knowledge. In a densely argued chapter, Moreland carefully justifies the legitimacy of absolute truth, confident knowledge of this truth, and of spritual knowledge in addition to empirical (physicalist) knowledge. Page 114 to 120 contain an extensive list of Biblical references to knowledge, just so that the reader understands the Biblical priority for this.

Moreland helpfully maps out the differences between certainty, confidence and simply knowing, justifying the particularist view of knowledge, which is most compatible with Christianity. He then goes on to explain the types of knowledge, and uses this foundation to explain how knowledge relates to faith. "In actual fact, faith -- confidence, trust -- is rooted in knowledge." (p 131)

He uses this strong foundation to then explain how to build our faith:

  1. Understand the content and strength of your beliefs, and develop a plan to improve them.
  2. Take appropriate risks that will stretch your faith (we aren't really confident in something until we've tested it).
  3. Read and seek testimonies about God's miraculous work in people's lives.

The third point is an interesting one, and Moreland actually starts the book with the story of a miracle, using that story to point out how naturalists and relativists will interpret it, and how Christians should interpret it. In this chapter he gives several more stories, as examples and encouragement.

The second leg of the Kingdom Triangle is the renovation of the soul. In this chapter Moreland talks about the development of spiritual disciplines.

He starts out well, with a wonderful summary of the problem modern Westerners face: the empty self. Modern Western society encourages people to become empty selves: inordinately individualistic, infantile, narcissistic, and passive. It is worth quoting Moreland's observation of how this impacts the church, from page 143.

Given the impact of the empty self on all of us, we can no longer afford to do church the way we have frequently done it. We can no longer afford to build churches largely around powerful communicators who do our studying and thinking for us, and we can no longer build our services around providing bits of entertainment for an hour or so once a week. Already addicted to passivity and entertainment, these are precisely what empty selves are looking for.

There is nothing wrong with having an excellent communicator or an entertaining service each week. All things being equal, I would rather have an interesting teacher on Sunday than someone to whom it is hard to listen, and the same goes for the rest of the service. But the Sunday morning service was never intended to be the staple for growing world-changing communities or for producing radically different people under the shelter of God's wings. Those dramatic goals require a decentralized philosophy of ministry, which takes as its aim the equipping of the body for the work of ministry and the fostering of authentic Christian spiritual formation.

Moreland then goes on to explain what he means by fostering spiritual formation. He takes Paul's words in Rom 6:11-13, 19, and develops a metaphor of training our bodies for tennis, as we train them for righteousness. Just as tennis players train their muscles to perform the correct actions, so we need to train ourselves to perform the righteous acts with our bodies and minds. Tennis players spend time doing repetitive training, to build strength that can be used in the game; we too should build our spiritual strength through disciplines. Moreland points out how some exercises are merely means to an end (such as playing piano scales, or writing a prayer journal), while others are ends in themselves (such as practicing a tennis serve or praying constantly). We need to work on both.

This is the weakest part of the book, since it has little effort expended on justifying the directions that Moreland takes (unlike the previous section, which the entire first part of the book thoroughly undergirds). Moreland uses a traditional approach to spiritual disciplines, with much of it referring to other books, such as Dallas Willard's Spirit of the Disciplines. However, his lack of careful justification of his recommendations in this area does, I believe, show up in the few weaknesses. For example, Moreland recommends a "Christian therapist" to help us identify and overcome the causes of various spiritual, emotional and mental issues in our lives. The concept of a Christian therapist, while it may seem reasonable in the USA, sounds indulgent and rather silly to Australian ears. Not only that, but Moreland doesn't even mention a prolific author in this area of spiritual disciplines who has developed a strong theme of small group therapy, namely Larry Crabb. I strongly recommend his Safest Place on Earth, Connecting, and Soul Talk, all of which address how the church and its small groups can (and, indeed, should) fulfil the purpose of Christian therapy. But this seems to be the only place that Moreland stumbles, and it is in the details, rather than the big picture.

Finally Moreland describes what he considers his most radical direction for the church: the restoration of the kingdom's miraculous power. In this chapter, which has been thoroughly justified by numerous examples peppered through the book so far, and then further bolstered by numerous further accounts here, Moreland points out how the church needs to recognise the miraculous power of God at work in our world, and its role in delivering that power. As Moreland has carefully developed, the Christian worldview is absolutely committed to the miraculous power of God. Indeed, it is founded on it. And yet we so often think and act as if that power is no longer present in the world. Moreland challenges us to live and act as if God were real and on the move right now, and he gives plenty of evidence to build our confidence in this being the case. This section, despite its radical challenges to materialists, with well grounded and easy, even exciting for a committed Christian to accept.

The book is rounded off with a conclusion, a helpful biography, and a detailed index.

If the church could pay attention to this work, then I, like Moreland, believe that we could transform our society. We need to stop imitating the world around us and start living, talking, and acting like we are the ones who know the secret of the world. We should be unashamed of our confident knowledge of Christ's miraculous work in our minds and our bodies! We should be living as if God were really the creator and maintainer of all we see and are. Can we do that? Can we take God's word seriously and apply it to our lives as the body of Christ? I believe we can, and I hope and pray that I can be a part of helping that to happen here in Australia.