Monday, May 15, 2017

The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb

Image: Goggin and Strobel.
A dangerous though obligatory contribution. A testing litany of truth spotlighting the Venus flytrap of pastoral ministry; the corrupting antithetical nature of power set to offend the gospel kingdom. An urgently needed though repugnant offering. These are but a few observations that could be made of The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel.
This book will not be comfortable reading if you’re contented using worldly power to ‘build’ the [read, your] kingdom. And the starkest truth is we must all face the truth that our flesh instinct is to go the way of the all-powerful dragon. Our first challenge is to meet the truth we most wish to repel. It’s costly. But it’s also the only way we’ll build for the (capital ‘k’) kingdom. To go the way of the powerless lamb. But this book reveals the truth we all ought to implicitly know: the way of the dragon corrupts and ruins; yet, the way of the lamb multiplies peace.
Self-preservation may be the motive, for the Kingdom, but this motive reveals how insidious the way of the dragon is. One YouTube video to promote the book has Kyle Strobel saying:
“… there’s something that startled us. It was the reality that the church—the very institution God gave us to further His gospel, to be the body of Christ—can become a place that actually taps into evil power to try to further its message. And more and more as we consider this message we realize we’ve been tempted by them.”
This book is about power in weakness for love; a wholly Jesus power, vested in weakness through the cross for an all-consuming eternal love.
The authors say that power is the capacity to affect reality. But for Christians the pursuit of the ability to affect reality is second to our pursuit of God. For, to truly rely on Jesus is entrance into reality itself.
This book helps the reader to understand something inherent to the health of their soul: power is a perennial paradox. Grab at it and it stings us primordially. It promises to bless us, but instead it curses us.
The central thesis of this book is the differentiation of power: the way from above or the way from below. James 3:13-18. The book comes back time and again to this passage as its datum point.
This book harnesses the witness of sages like Eugene Peterson, Jean Vanier, J.I. Packer, Marva Dawn, James Houston, and Dallas Willard, unassuming people who belie the power they’ve been given.
If a church leadership wants to be the church in this tremulous day they need to read this book. If a pastor wishes to be impactful for Christ they ought to genuinely trust Him, bearing the lessons of this book ever in their mind, on their heart, within their soul. Any Christian, if they wish to honour God, will step through the discomfort in this book, and reconcile themselves to an ugly and inconvenient truth: we, in our veiled power, are our own worst enemies, most atrociously when we insist we’re doing His work in our own strength through insidious motives.
Citing Calvin, the authors find power comes through weakness at the valley floor where rains make the lowly spirit salubrious, where otherwise the summit is dry, unsustaining, and a refuge for pride. Only where it rains is God’s grace plenteous. Paradoxically, the valley of spiritual hardship is the best place to be. So, this book says, to embody kingdom power, become a valley.
Desire for significance is something we all must reconcile. We don’t see how weakness augments power. Striving for significance is a fraudulent way to sidestep the work of weakness in all our lives.
James Houston is interviewed and highlights that self-redemption (the negation of Christ) is a form of atheism in the Christian life. This manifests in the church through role-playing and mask-wearing. Pouring contempt on pride is about choosing to minister in an area that is a personal Achilles heel. But churches want powerful, effective ministers. What is most deeply encouraging is what ‘ministry’ like this looks like through the humbling porthole of marriage—it is to accept “our inability to love another well.”[1]
The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb is considerately crafted having been painstakingly developed from a factfinding mission of the authors. They plumbed the depths of their sages’ lives. Sages gave freely and vulnerably. Their wisdom is carried down to us.
The authors are transparent to show through their own lives how they’ve indeed fallen for the power trap. Theirs are living case studies that “the flourishing self is the abiding self, not the actualized self.”[2] But so often self-actualization (the world’s way) has been the church’s way.
Another pivotal test of power in the church is its lauding of glitzy giftedness. Does any church honor those who society typically ignores or overlooks?[3] The authors cite 1 Corinthians 12:24-26 in such a way that I, the reader, felt I had read it for the first time, and thought, “wow!”
The “lust for domination” has always been a serious temptation for leaders in Christ’s church. Pivoting around James 3:13-18, again, the authors connect selfish ambition with the demonic. Biblically, the superapostles of 2 Corinthians[4] comes into view.
Marva Dawn says that Mammon, a serious power and principality of the church today, causes pastors to create facades of personality to draw crowds. But it’s not just pastors. Too many Christians are too reliant on salaries so their dependence on God is minimal. The demonic can be as banal as pastors trying to outdo one another. None of us would ever imagine that, being the church, we might work for the ends of the powers and principalities. Of course, the very culture that absorbs us and the church into it propagates evils such as racism, ageism, zealous nationalism, and materialism.[5] The demonic weaves itself through its agents—the world and the flesh.
The authors tell us that, whilst money, sex, and power are intertwined wisdom from below, our culture views only sex as sin, as far as a pastor’s life is concerned. The concept of immorality has been watered down. Yet, Jesus placed pride alongside murder and adultery.[6] And Paul saw likewise. Yet, our culture resists this wisdom in Scripture.
The challenge for the church, Goggin and Strobel say, is to identify the roots of its works. It’s about recognizing that sin and death are living powers ever undermining the Kingdom in this world. And cruciformity is the way, the truth, and the life; a calling to receive power in weakness.[7]
Part of the problem is we, the church, and leaders in the church, have fallen for the assumption that powers can save us. Jesus saw the temptations,[8] whereas we often don’t. Satan’s power is subtle and subversive, persuasive and persistent. Marva Dawn is seen by the authors as a paragon of Kingdom power, hobbling unimpressively up to a microphone to speak. Yet, we don’t like that kind of power. We have fallen for the ruse that being powerful is impressive. Still, impressiveness saves none of us. Only trusting in the impressiveness of Jesus saves.
Systemic evil in the church is not something the authors wish to presume. But, they take a detour into the ways of below charted through American history: slavery, racism, and systems of evil. It wasn’t long ago we were still laughing at minstrelsy. And a deeply dark and racist thread has been woven into the underbelly of American culture since. Though the church hasn’t harbored such evil it’s done little to resist and speak into its culture through being an alternate, set-apart culture. Yet, a model was given us in nonviolent resistance by Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr. Befriending the oppressor, the system is resisted, as oppressors are loved. Such strength to love is proffered within only when a person’s heart refuses to hate. The authors demonstrate how King exemplified how to “overcome evil with good,”[9] knowing full well that even greater violence is the response of the oppressor who is resisted through being loved. King lived per his Lord.[10] And the showcase of John Perkins’ testimony glorifies God.[11] Reading Perkins’ own restoration, of white men showing him love, caused tears to well up within me; God’s touch upon his life rippling outward to you and me, the reader. Something so deeply paradoxical to evangelical Christianity, the book shows how slavery was used as an absurd and repugnant instrument for ‘doing good’ in lives that needed saving. And yet today we have the self-same capacities for justification. Thinking we’re better is a falling into pride.
The book showcases actual humility in the authors as they reflect on their gleanings. Goggin and Strobel gaze cavernously into the issues that make each of us one with evil. And Christ’s ministry of reconciliation brings us back, time and again, from that abyss. Recognising that people are not our enemies (the powers are) we might mindfully note the systemic evils present all around us.
Jean Vanier is founder of L’Arche, a movement of 150 communities of vulnerable people with disabilities. He mentored Twentieth Century theological paragon, Henri J.M. Nouwen (1932-1996), who joined L’Arche. Nouwen’s theology was impacted profoundly by L’Arche. Vanier tells the authors that living with people with disabilities led him to learn of his own disabilities; that loving people is difficult. Central to discipleship is learning disconcerting truths about ourselves. Through being in community, the Holy Spirit uses others to gently reveal these truths to us. Only as we anticipate God’s work in this process, accepting our weaknesses when it would be easier to reject them (and thus, ourselves), are we enabled to embrace all others. Making the healing process circular, Vanier says “being loved and accepted in community allows us to accept ourselves as we are.”[12] In a helpful insight, Goggin reflects on a community experience that hadn’t worked well, because of the insecurities he was at that time harboring. The wisdom of Vanier is this: he celebrates the appreciation of the very things that annoy him. He understands that reality can only be accepted; it’s Jesus’ will for his and all our lives.
What follows the extensive discussion with Vanier is a nuanced vignette in the paradoxes of vulnerability, as if the darkness itself would use weakness falsely. Worldly power seeks to turn every good thing into an idolatrous counterfeit. To address false vulnerability, we must be truly known by others.[13]
To be family, the book continues, means I am theirs and they are mine.[14] As opposed to groups who exclude, families include, seeing issues are internal to the self, not external from the self. There is no scapegoat in the authentic family; there are no inherent losers. Being ‘in Christ’ is a commitment to this type of community.[15] And Christ’s power can only truly be known in and through the community.
And yet, there are powers in community which must be exposed and stopped. Precisely through what Henri Nouwen called downward mobility, a community receives the leadership it needs through empowering servants exemplifying the giving wisdom of Jesus that comes from above. Our Lord’s example proves inspiring for anyone disposed as a wretch at the mercy of life. This rewarding read gives us a unique glimpse into humbling compartments of Nouwen’s life from the vantage point of his supervisor, Vanier. Indeed, the whole work is like that. Full of slivers of 24-carat gold. The precious Vanier parcels can only be fully appreciated by reading them in this book.
Etched in remarkable truth that none of us wishes to admit,[16] this book validates the lonely though authentic experience of life the Jesus follower often endures. Vanier tells the reader that loneliness was Nouwen’s oft reality.
Astoundingly, an anonymous pastor is quoted as saying a “smart, productive atheist” could do his job.[17] What an encouragement this book gives for pastors who don’t feel gifted, but must rely on the Holy Spirit. God equips the called. Real fruit is distinguished from worldly key performance indicators. What liberty Goggin gives when he describes how the Lord freed him from profession to vocation; duty for devotion! But that liberty is also imprinted in loneliness, for it is unadorned and real.
The next stop for the authors was every pastor’s best friend, Eugene Peterson. (As I read of the development in the authors’ letter-writing relationship with The Pastor, God compelled me to re-watch the recent video on U2’s Bono and Peterson.) Peterson calls attention to the paradoxical duality that is the power (within) and ignominy (without) in pastoral ministry. Akin to the earlier discussion on money, sex, and power, Peterson harkened awareness to the triune source of addiction: substances, sex, and crowds. The latter is a concealed crisis awaiting every pastor. The book unpacks this crisis.
Brought up within Saddleback Church, Goggin lays his cards at the table of his rest. In sharing his grandiosity, he walks the talk of the book. As Strobel and Goggin recommence their discussion with reluctant luminary, Peterson, the conversation swings to the thesis for good pastoral work, relationships, and the antithesis, control. Relationship tends away from programs and management and toward knowing people’s names and entering homes, theirs and, for them, ours. The very power a pastor has access to must be refused as he/she nurtures equality of relationship (i.e. friendship) with their congregants.
The title of this book is inspired by phraseology in Peterson’s book Reversed Thunder—an exposition of biblical Revelation. The framing of the pastoral role is indelibly about shepherding and the embracing of weakness. It’s not something a pastor is ever to define.[18] The section on toxic leadership needs to be read individually and used as a helpful self-audit, not to audit another person’s leadership, which would flip us into judgment which is pride.
The next sojourn is at (the late) Dallas Willard’s home. The USC philosophy professor of forty-eight years and world guru on spiritual direction laments that there’s more humanity than Christ in Christianity these days. Pastoral leadership is sadly more about leadership and programs now and less about character and presence.[19] Pastors are to be carriers of God’s presence, kingdom, and grace into others’ lives. Willard is noted as saying pastoral ministry is truly an exercise in the abandonment of one’s life to God, as should be the case (but rarely is) for all Christians. Of course, the trust required for true abandonment is only possible for people who see spiritual realities beyond worldly realities.[20] In one short word, faith.
Christian leadership, the authors tell us, is to be set apart as different to worldly leadership, yet they lament how much Christian leadership has coveted and aligned itself with secular leadership models.
The book closes in a celebration of the New Covenant exodus of Jesus that gives us new life, and of concepts of our faith system that reinforce our equality, like communion, among the powers of God. Yet, there’s also the warning. The rituals of the church are just as easily co-opted to power and control; the way from below.[21]
The final chapter concludes the book well, with Goggin reflecting honestly on what he’s learned, and how he still relies on the way from below from time to time. Likewise, Strobel laments the struggle to relegate system value and personal status for the ways of weakness and God-reliance. With the focus on reinterning what was learned through the study tour process, our authors reflect on God’s goodness glorified through these sages’ lives.
It’s fitting that one of the concluding terms makes for something of a future vision within the church. Not often imbued by violence, but still so evermore tarrying in division, the church needs a mandate to non-divisive resistance, where power within the church is so minimized that conflict can run a healthy course. The authors commend a mature handling of conflict such that churches are malleable to the threat and possibility of splits, factions, and tribalism. Whilst Rev Dr King’s method of nonviolent resistance relied upon a refusal to hate, the church’s strategy of non-divisive resistance, equally, must reject the temptation of division. We must learn to name evil in the church, yet not be threatened by its naming; that naming would not need to be fatal. Indeed, church leadership should allow for such orderly digressions of resistance. And, further still, a pastoral response akin to Paul, in not correcting the ignorant, is restorative when the punitive approach might ruin the weaker brother or sister.[22]
This book, The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel, was very worthy of review. The authors taught me and encouraged me. I give the book four stars out of five.
This article by Ed Stetzer is a concise summary of the truths in The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb.
Full Reference: Goggin, J. & Strobel, K. The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb. Nashville: Nelson Books, 2017.

[1] Location 956 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[2] The abiding self in this context is the self that depends on (abiding with) God alone. Location 1032 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[3] Location 1103 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[4] See chapter 11, verses 13-15.
[5] Location 1387 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[6] Location 1441 of 4030 in the Kindle edition. See the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.
[7] Location 1515 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[8] Matthew 4:1-11.
[9] Romans 12:21. Also, verses 9-21.
[10] Jesus “… suffered at the hands of the very people he came to save.” (Location 1613 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.)
[11] “Perkins saw how evil defiled human beings…” and Perkins himself said, “I couldn’t hate back. When I saw what hate had done to them, I couldn’t hate back. I could only pity them. I didn’t ever want hate to do to me what it had already done to those men.” (Location 1652 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.)
[12] Location 1925 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[13] I like the authors’ quote: “Worldly power cannot thrive when honesty and vulnerability reign.” (Location 2040 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.)
[14] Location 2040f of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[15] Location 2062 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[16] I like the authors’ quote… “We think we want community, but deep down we want to be in a group that makes us feel special.” (Location 2161 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.)
[17] Location 2170 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[18] Location 2405 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[19] Location 2564 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[20] Location 2694 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.
[21] I like this quote from the authors (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:17): “When the rituals of the church are infused with the way from below, the church voids the cross of its power.” (Location 3049 of 4030 in the Kindle edition.)
[22] In 1 Corinthians 8 the issue is food sacrificed to idols, but the deeper issue was one of ignorance. People should never be punished for encroaching boundaries they’re unaware of.