Reading Jonathan Fisk’s Broken: 7 “Christian” Rules That Every Christian Ought to Break as Often as Possible is not unlike watching one of his webcasts. The energy, the humor, the pop-culture references, the easy glide into theological language, it’s all there. The only thing missing is that Gorgon-looking creature who groans “Eeeeee-mail.”
Yesterday, I reviewed a review of Broken by David Snyder, a Reformed Baptist. I was taken aback by how he ended his assessment: “Broken does a great job of exposing false gospels, but also tends to underestimate the power of the true one.” I then used that as the basis for a very long post on what I thought was missing, not necessarily from Broken, as I admitted I had not read it, but from too many Lutheran pulpits, especially in relation to reaching young people.
Now I have read it.
As Snyder affirmed, Fisk is very good at culling from the culture the many false starts at finding God, as well as the attempts either to tame Him, internalize Him, or reduce Him to mere moralism. Young Christians trapped in legalistic churches that have reinterpreted the Faith as little more than trying harder will find welcome relief from passages such as these:
Guilt is the firstborn son of Moralism. You set your rules, and then you break them. You put off your judgment by judging others. You slide the scale to make it go away. But following Moralism’s rule is like trying to erase answers on the SAT. As hard as you rub the pink rubber eraser, the black number 2 lead still lays engrained in the page.
And I found both fun and funny his takedown of New Age nonsense like The Secret — which he counterintuitively embeds in his chapter on Rationalism, and frames with references to Star Wars and the botch that was the second trilogy. It may seem like a mish-mosh, or at least mish, but Fisk pulls it all together and makes it work:
Mentioned for the first time in the “new” Star Wars movies . . . midi-chlorians were something no self-respecting Star Wars had ever heard of or dreamed of. They are microscopic organisms that live inside Jedi Knights, acting as conduits by which the Force can be used.
But wait a minute. Huh? Exactly. The Force was supposed to be an inexplicable, mystical energy field that held all things together and was channeled through sheer strength of will, aided by religious devotion. . . .
But, nope. Sorry to disappoint you. As it turns out, that was mostly mumbo jumbo. It was not a convenient, if ignorant, lie. Luke Skywalker did not guide those two proton torpedoes into the Death Star’s exhaust with super tenacious prayer juju. Instead, he merely inherited from his father a very unique (and quite advanced) bacterial infection. . . .
So what this means is that, a long, long time ago, on a weekend in 1993 [sic], Rationalism crushed Mysticism’s Rebel Alliance to overthrow pop culture. . . .
This is why when author Rhonda Byrne sold her secret knowledge of “how to manipulate the universe in three easy steps, like Star Wars before her, she, too, needed to explain her religious “Law of Attraction” with an appeal to science. The postmodern mystic won’t buy just any old voodoo. But a bottle of snake oil empowered by the marvel of cutting-edge quantum physics?
Fisk riffs through restorationist ecclesiology, the great church do-over, which never quite gets done, and so finds itself starting all over again, a near relation to church hopping, the consumerist approach to the church that “works” for me. (Although there’s a strange disconnect between the way Fisk opens the door for a variety of worship styles and his later commendation of tradition. And where is the emphasis on the right administration, and theology, of the Sacraments as a sign that you’re on the right track in picking a church?)
He tackles erroneous ideas about prosperity—or lack of it—bearing a direct relationship to your standing with God. While he highlights the Trinity Broadcasting–type hucksters and megachurch stuff, this actually has deep roots in certain strains of Puritanism. Again: the search for our election in something other than the promises of God, in, say, temporal blessings. (Which is not to say we should expect to be poor, lonely, sick, and confused all our lives. At least I hope not.)
Finally, Fisk closes Broken with the ultimate delusion: that we find God, as opposed to God finding us. And he ties up the “Broken” theme nicely with an exposition of how Christ was broken for us.
I find the subtitle a tad “off,” somehow. Although Fisk calls his rules “Christian,” I think most readers will recognize most of these ideas or tendencies more as wayward paths that are on sale as alternatives to Christianity, although variants can certainly sneak their way into the tabernacle in devious ways. But that’s a quibble.
The book could definitely have used more editing, some tightening up. It tends to wander and miss necessary connections it should be making. There is also need for some clarification of language. For example: “Just as His incarnate flesh was not merely human, so now His own human words are still breathed whenever they are spoken with a total spiritual divinity.” This comes across as somewhat monophysistic, which I’m certain was not his intention. Jesus’s flesh was certainly human and his person comprises two natures—human and divine—such that His words are truly God’s words. Yes?
With all of that said, and in light of my post from yesterday, would I add or retract anything regarding what David Snyder saw as missing from Broken and what I saw as missing from too much of Lutheranism today?
Fisk addresses the problems with “freedom” as manifested by lawlessness as just another God dodge, but doesn’t sustain an argument for what this means in the life of the individual believer. In the chapter “Never #4: Ozymandias and Me,” he speaks about his youthful rebellion, his drug use, and how he ended up praying to be forgiven for his sin and to be relieved of his addiction, which he insists was a Sisyphusean act of futility. The chapter then veers off into another direction entirely, but finally circles back to his conclusion:
In the war waged against one’s own soul, sanctification’s most certain fruit in an everlasting awareness that for every sin you manage to leave behind, you find six more, all worse than the first, that you didn’t even know you were harboring within. . . .
Getting away from my mental dependence on marijuana took a long time and a great amount of Gospel. At last it was not about the dangers and sinful self-destruction that brought about the change, nor was it a visionary moment of superpowered reversal. It was forgiveness. . . . But I make no mistake. My sin is not gone, nor will it be this side of the Last Day.
This opens so many cans of worms, I could open a store. I wish Fisk had rested here a while and talked about addictions that don’t necessarily heal with the balm of forgiveness. Is it always wrong to pray to be relieved of the burden of a particular habit, sin, or obsession? (From things I’ve heard him say online, he tends to de-emphasize particular “sins” as opposed to Sin. As I asked in my post yesterday—what of auricular confession to a pastor? Is this just a morbid dwelling on particulars when the penitent should be focusing strictly on the universal?)
Fisk also rings the self-worship bell so often—the depths of our depravity, our sin hiding only more sin—that one wonders whether there’s an I at all that isn’t merely a catalog of horrors. He’s walking a thin line between a realistic assessment of our separation from God and what appears to be a separation from anything recognizably human. He does remark that this theology “frees the you in yourself to not always have to be about Me.” But then he appears to take it all back, because even love for fellow sinners can easily revert to being about how free you are, and thus it becomes all about Me again. But my goodness, man, at what point does even the struggle with Me-ism become, well, all about Me? How easy it is to fall into the maze of solipsism that even to pray for release is just another self-interested sin!
Now, it is absurd to expect a confessional Lutheran pastor to write a book that will please a Reformed Baptist like Snyder or even an opinionated smart aleck like me all the way down the line. I have no doubt Fisk wrote the book he set out to write. And it may seem churlish to groan about the book he didn’t write.
Bu-u-u-u-u-t . . . if his primary audience is composed of the young, restless, and misguided, I don’t think it’s wrong to expect a chapter, even a coda, on What now. “OK, Rev. Fisk: you’ve pointed me in the right direction—the Word of God. I’ve learned not to trust my feelings or scientism or ‘progress.’ I trust only in the Cross. I lean not on my own understanding but on the promises of a God who is faithful. But what now? Can I pray to be healed of this or that addiction, compulsion, illness? Or is that some form of self-worship? Can I pray for guidance in choosing a career, a home, a spouse? Or is that to look for God’s word outside the Bible? Should I be simplifying my lifestyle so I have more disposable income to give to the poor? Or is that works righteousness? Am I allowed to do anything but confess that I’m a sinner? I really need to know. Because I’m afraid I’m confusing law and Gospel without even knowing it.”
My fear is that the portrait Fisk paints of the faith is one of an endless series of booby traps, spiritual no-nos, landmines, one after another, such that the uninitiated will begin to sense not freedom but that they’re being set up to fail—no “dos” but a thousand and one mental and conceptual “dont’s.” Yes, a confessional legalism.
Lest I seem overly negative, what Fisk does accomplish, however, is no small thing. If teenagers and college kids need anything, it’s focus. Their minds, hearts, loyalties are diverted by a thousand different siren songs. They need a focal point in their field of vision to reorient them, to keep them moving on through the narrow gate. And Fisk is very good at that—refocusing his readers’ eyes onto the Cross.
When all is said and done, there’s enough good stuff in Broken that I have no qualms about recommending it so long as my caveats are kept intact. The language is certainly accessible to even a theologically illiterate reader, and at the very least it can prove the starting point for some interesting conversations, and even pushback along the lines I have expressed. Plus, the man has 248 children to feed. Have a heart, you miserable pikers.
Here’s what I hope. There are 2.3 million members of the LCMS. I hope 1 percent—one measly, minuscule percent—of LCMSers buy this book. Believe me, I’ve been in publishing long enough to know that those sales figures will result in police showing up at Concordia Publishing House because of all the calls about the partying going on there. Consequently, Rev. Fisk will be motivated to write a second book: Risen: Living the Gospel Life Like Only a Lutheran Can.
Let me leave you with this. I watch The Journey Home program on EWTN from time to time. As I have written before, two of my former Lutheran pastors have appeared on that show. Both are now Catholic priests. One of the issues raised on a pretty consistent basis is how Protestantism doesn’t have a way to deal with suffering the way Catholics do. You know, offering it up for the Holy Souls in purgatory to mitigate their misery kind of thing. With all due respect to my Catholic friends, it’s at that point I usually roll my eyes and turn on reruns of WKRP in Cincinnati.
To combat this inherited evil dwelling in you, God also insists that you experience a little water slapped in your face, along with the regular taste of a bit of bread and wine on your lips. About these experiences He speaks to you and tells you that they are of Christ. He says these words and signs are His imputation. His binding of your death, debt, and failures to the cross of Jesus, and the great converse grafting of Jesus’ resurrected heath, eternal wealth, and divine prosperity into you … through faith alone. You don’t see Him, but you believe in Him (1 Peter 1:8). His mind is your mind (1 Corinthians 2:16). His future is your future (2 Timothy 2:11). He is safe (1 Peter 1:4), immortal (1 Timothy 1:17), imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:54), having conquered death once, never to die again (Romans 6:9), having overcome this perishing world (John 16:33), having prospered (Matthew 28:6) in the true, God-given way (John 14:6), for you (1 John 4:4).
With that vision of the Great Exchange, what need for purgatory?