Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit

Mark Galli Baker Books, Grand Rapids October 1, 2011
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The author, a former Presbyterian minister, serves as senior managing editor of Christianity Today. In this book he argues that the gift of the Holy Spirit brings both chaos and grace. “We normally think God is to be found in peace and order, and this is true. But I hope to show that he can also be found in disorder and confusion—and that often he is the instigator of the chaos” (p. 19). In the first part of the book he sketches the themes of “chaos and liberation” in the Bible. He admits that his reading of Scripture is “quirky” since “other themes are arguably more important” (ibid.). The second half of the book then is an analysis of contemporary church culture.

Much in this book is to be appreciated. God does work in surprising ways. His Spirit is a gracious gift, and life in a fallen world is often full of chaos. Yet the author’s attempt to defend his thesis is at times confusing as well as quirky. For example he introduces the creation of humanity in this way: “A workweek of activity had left the planet in a state of holy confusion. But God decided to work the weekend, at least the first day of the weekend. He had one more idea to put on the table before he took a break. And what he did next suggests that one should not push it, that one’s best ideas are not necessarily those that come at the end of a hard week. But God went ahead anyway, oblivious to the consequences” (p. 37). The creation of humanity in the image of God surely deserves a less “quirky” interpretation. Later, Galli describes in this way God’s command to name the animals: “One imagines that the Mischief Maker [the Spirit of God] gave us this job as a practical joke, to point out that it was an impossible job, so resplendent was the creation” (p. 38).

Galli designates the fall as “Another Eucatastrophe” (p. 40), defined as a “good catastrophe” (p. 38). He describes the woman’s thought processes as she considers the serpent’s suggestion that eating the forbidden fruit will make her wise. “Once more, we see a noble human virtue—the yearning for wisdom. And the man and the woman are in desperate need of wisdom. They have a relationship to negotiate, and eventually offspring to raise, and animals to name, and a garden exploding with life and unimaginable energy to manage. The woman is to be commended for recognizing that she doesn’t have it all together, that she needs help, that she and her man need guidance if they are going to exercise dominion” (p. 43). That is a strange reading of the temptation narrative, as is this interpretation of the result of eating the fruit: “Immediately they know something is amiss. Their eyes have been opened, all right. They have quickly become smarter and wiser” (ibid.). This sounds as if Galli is attributing a good result to their rebellion against God. Perhaps most confusing is the claim that “as the larger biblical story unfolds, we see that the so-called curses we now live under will in fact become blessings” (p. 47).

The second half of the book is full of exceptional and perceptive insights into the current church culture. Galli identifies a tendency to be more concerned about horizontal relationships (with other humans) than the vertical (with God). He concludes, “The paradox, of course, is that dying to the horizontal is precisely the act that brings energy and grace to the horizontal. It is neither an either-or, either horizontal or vertical. They can no more be separated than can the sun’s light and heat. But heat without light becomes a dark and oppressive hothouse, in which our work for the Lord is nothing but dreary toil. Add sunlight in the open air, and suddenly we find ourselves in the midst of a beautiful summer day” (p. 117). That is a powerful word picture.

Another excellent chapter addresses the tension of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. He writes, “To put it theologically, just as we like to note that Good Friday points to Easter, Easter points back to Good Friday. Easter is not about a giddy happiness that dulls the pain of life, helping us forget our troubles for a day. It can be a triumphant hope, but it is always a sobering hope for those in the midst of a death walk—that is, all of us” (p. 130). And this insight is profound: “I sometimes wonder whether our churches—living as we do in American death-denying culture, relentlessly smiling through our praise choruses—are inadvertently helping people live not as much in hope as in denial” (ibid.). Finally, “The resurrection is, among other things, the announcement that death has lost its deadly sting. But the resurrection without the crucifixion is empty optimism, an optimism that gives credence to Freud’s notion that wishful thinking is the sum and substance of our faith. Include the crucifixion—and our role in that bloody moment—and the whole picture changes. Now we’re not talking about pie in the sky by and by but about an event in history for which we are responsible” (p. 133).

In his concluding chapter Galli explains, “The point of this book, and I believe the point of the Bible, is to help all of us to live more boldly and more openly—with one another and in the Spirit. We can indeed live as if Christ has set us free from anything that would bind us—disease or despair, injustice or legalism, social justice or moral reform, religion or ritual—and show a watching world (and a watching church) that grace is first and foremost a life of uncoerced love, in service to the world for whom Christ died” (p. 184). As an aid toward that goal, even with some of Galli’s unusual interpretations of Scripture, this book is worth reading. Yet it must be read carefully and critically, but that is always good advice.

—Glenn R. Kreider

July 1, 2012
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Jul-Sep 2012 vol. 169 no. 3 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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