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Book Review: Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance

 

“This is Robin Meyers at his pastoral and prophetic best.

Read it, and then for the love of God—RESIST!”

–Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu

 
YaleDuring his thirty-year career as a parish minister and professor, Robin Meyers has focused on renewing the church as an instrument of social change and personal transformation. In this provocative and passionate book, he explores the decline of the church as a community of believers and calls readers back to the church’s roots as a community of resistance. Shifting the conversation about church renewal away from theological purity and marketing strategies that embrace cultural norms, and toward “embodied noncompliance” with the dominant culture, Meyers urges a return to the revolutionary spirit that marked Jesus’s ministry.

Framing his discussion around three poems by twentieth-century Polish poet Anna Kamienska, Meyers casts the nature of faith as a force that stands against anything and everything that engenders death and indignity. He calls for active—sometimes even subversive—defiance of the ego’s temptations, of what he terms “the heresy of orthodoxy itself,” and of an uncritical acceptance of militarism and capitalism. Each chapter is a poignant and urgent invitation to recover the Jesus Movement as a Beloved Community of Resistance.

Spiritual-Defiance

Additional endorsements include words of praise from:
John Dominic Crossan
Phyllis Tickle
Harvey Cox, Brian McLaren
Walter Brueggemann
John Buchanan
Ben Guess
 

A Word From The Author:

 
When the invitation came from Yale Divinity School to give the 2013-2014 Lyman Beecher Lectures, I must admit to having been as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. It is one thing to pretend to be smarter than you really are in Oklahoma. It is much harder to pull off at Yale.

The Beecher Lectures are one of the most venerable and distinguished lectureships on religion in America, funded in 1871 by Lyman Beecher, father of Henry Ward Beecher, brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The lectures have been given by some of the most distinguished theologians and preachers in America, but by only one other Oklahoman, Fred B. Craddock, the most beloved and respected teacher of preaching in America.

The obvious dilemma was this: what to speak about? Most of the Beecher Lectures have been about preaching, which is central to my life’s work. But I wanted to talk about something else. I wanted to talk about resistance.

Here is how I explained it in the prologue to Spiritual Defiance:
 

The Church is Dead: Long Live the Church!

 
It may sound sad, especially coming from a clergyman, but in fact the church many of us grew up with is dying right before our eyes. If not dead, it barely lives. On countless street corners squats the shabby specter of these once vibrant places. Church buildings are on lockdown most of the time, haunted hulks of vaulted ceilings, empty pews, and bygone glory. Inside are dusty storage closets full of idle angel wings, boxes of unused hymnals, and once bright nurseries now draped in cobwebs. All that’s left is the ghost of Christmas past. The young say “Bah humbug.”

Meanwhile, the clergy are a weary and lonesome lot. He works part-time. She puts in overtime. Everyone is trying to make it to retirement time. Meanwhile, there are devout souls who won’t give up. Somewhere, at this very moment, someone has called another board meeting to “turn things around.” At this gathering perhaps the Spirit will be poured out on all flesh, and “your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams.” Trouble is, there are no young men (or women) to see anything, and the old men dream only in black and white—nostalgic dreams about how things “used to be.” Countless churches now resemble museums, whose curators are aging and cranky souls clutching cold cups of coffee and blaming the death of Old First Church on anything and everything except the walking dead themselves. Like Elvis, the Holy Spirit has left the building . . .

The sad truth is that much of the church today is a harmless handmaiden of the corporate machine, clinging nostalgically to a gospel that is as unacceptable in practice now as it was in the beginning. We confuse performance with ministry, beliefs with faith, and charity with justice. Our demise is the result of the abandonment of our peculiar witness to the upside-down instructions left to us by a God-intoxicated misfit. Christians can survive almost anything, save the loss of distinctiveness. We can make our share of mistakes, but we cannot be a mistake.

The very definition of what it means to be a Christian must be salvaged now, taken back, by force if necessary, from those who domesticated a way of life and turned it into a quarreling quagmire of noisy “believers.” While we fiddle with the meaning of the Trinity, present-day Rome is burning. While we mumble our prayers for the poor, their poverty and pain increase by the hour. While we coddle the industries that ravage the earth for energy and then market death to us disguised as comfort, the conscience of the faithful has been euthanized by public relations campaigns that make us swoon with gratitude for the humanitarian altruism of Big Oil.

Where are the holy fools for God today? Who stands out in the crowd as a troublemaker for justice? Where can we find the spiritual contrarian, unplugged and unmoved by the choreographed hysteria of celebrity culture? Where do we find real wisdom in the age of the blog, where everyone with an opinion can self-publish, where authors presume not to need editors in a worldwide web of intellectual autoeroticism?The sad truth is that to help the American church “grow” we have dressed it in the uniform of Western culture. We have taught its leaders to be entrepreneurs, and to fret more about parking spaces than about peace and justice. We sing familiar hymns, but the lyrics fall on deaf ears. We recite creeds in worship that move no one, while others have decided they cannot speak them aloud in good conscience. In short, countless communities of faith are engaged in a charade on Sunday morning. The pews are full of pretenders.

The easiest thing would be to give up, of course, to disappear, to slide happily into retirement while telling the same tired old stories in the pulpit about walking with Jesus on the beach but seeing only one set of footprints in the sand. The real enemies of the church are found inside its walls. Sadly, the clergy shop as frantically as anyone at Christmastime, instead of warning people that the nativity is really a spiritual apocalypse. We commend praying for our enemies without confessing that the idea is more absurd and un-American than soccer. We cheer Jesus the Gentile lover while funding allies who are Gentile haters. We read the Sermon on the Mount as if it came from the back of a

So let this be the subject of my Beecher Lectures and book: faith as resistance: to ego, to orthodoxy, and last, but not least, to empire. Let it be known that this cry, “The church is dead, love live the church!” comes from a pastor, not from an evangelical atheist. It comes from a minister who is just as susceptible to the comforts of capitulation as the next man. Just as eager to make it to retirement with more than enough to live on. Just as tempted by the illusions of the prophetic so long as it costs me nothing. Just as egocentric and insatiable as are most clergy in search of affirmation. Just as happy to enjoy the benefits of empire, to mouth the mental laziness of orthodoxy, and to succumb to the seductions of “praise without practice” that afflict so many men and women of God.

There will be no recovery of the Beloved Community until we resist taking ourselves too seriously (ego); until we resist taking the purity of “right beliefs” and “right worship” too seriously (orthodoxy); and until we resist taking our marching orders from the powers that be (empire) too seriously. Instead, we can renew the church but one way—by taking the “narrow way” much more seriously. “And blessed is he who takes no offense at me.”

______________________________________________________________________________________
Rev. Dr. Robin Meyers is senior minister of Mayflower Congregational UCC Church, Oklahoma City, and professor of social justice in the Philosophy Department, Oklahoma City University. He is a peace activist and the best-selling author of six books. He lives in Oklahoma City with his wife three children, and two grandchildren.

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Spiritual Defiance: Building a Beloved Community of Resistance by Robin Myers

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