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Book Review - Unfashionable
May 05, 2009
Every now and again I pick up a book that I feel I should really enjoy. And yet, for one reason or another, it simply does not “click.” Unfashionable by Tullian Tchividjian is just such a book. It has been widely praised by Christians I respect and its six (!) pages of endorsements contain a veritable who’s who of prominent Evangelicals, each of whom tells of his esteem for the book and its author. And yet, after reading it through twice, I have significant concerns.
Unfashionable is about making a difference in the world by being different. The point Tchividjian tries to drive home throughout the book is this: Christians make a difference in this world by being different from the world; they don’t make a difference by being the same. And certainly we have seen the inevitable fallout from too many Christians who have done just the opposite, chasing every trend in a vain attempt to win the world by being nearly indistinguishable from the world. “In contrast, I’m asking you to embrace the delicious irony Christ demonstrated in bringing a message of God’s kingdom that subversively transforms both individuals and the world. Only by being properly unfashionable can we engage our broken world with an embodied gospel that witnesses to God’s gracious promise of restoration, significance, and life.” And so, through this book, Tchividjian seeks to give a clear picture of what it means to live “subversively and redemptively—for God and his expanding kingdom.”
He divides the book into four sections, making it well-structured and easy to follow. In The Call, he calls upon Christians to be different from the world, and to be, well, unfashionable by the world’s standards; in The Commission he calls upon Christians to be agents of renewal in the world; in The Community he shows what unfashionable Christians look like and how they live; in The Charge he gives that final charge, that final call, to make a difference by being different.
The section I most enjoyed was The Community. Here Tchividjian, showing his skill as a teacher of God’s Word, teaches from the book of Ephesians, showing six ways that God tells Christians to be different. He teaches on truth, righteous anger, generosity, edifying words, kindness and love. It is a good section that simply calls Christians to be different and shows from Scripture, carefully and consistently, how Christians are to do that.
Where I struggled most was in The Commission. Here Tchividjian teaches theology of God’s kingdom that I just was not able reconcile with Scripture. This is not to say that what he writes is unbiblical but rather that it strikes me as being nonbiblical. He writes about transformationalism, the view that God seeks to redeem and renew not just people but nations and cultures. I feel inadequate to really critique this kind of theology, so wish to tread very carefully here.
My concern is that such theology emphasizes the continuity between the world today and the world after the consummation of history and does so at the expense of the kind of radical discontinuity Scripture teaches. I know that when history is consummated in Christ, we will not go to some kind of ethereal cloud-land heaven. No, the Bible teaches that we will spend eternity on a renewed earth. We will live in bodies that, somehow, are still our bodies. At the same time, these bodies will rot and turn to dust and there is some reason to believe from Scripture that the earth itself will undergo that kind of a transformation. So there will be some genuine continuity between life now and life hereafter. As we read Scripture we wrestle with reconciling both continuity and discontinuity.
Yet as I read Unfashionable I saw much greater emphasis on continuity and all that this then entails. “God promises nothing short of total cosmic renewal. Our confident anticipation of that renewal—our living hope of it—triggers and sustains our excitement and motivation for making a difference by living unfashionable lives. It links us with something so grand and glorious that it easily exposes the flimsy lie behind mere fashionability.” And so Tchividjian tells us that we need to take part in God’s work of “revitalization” and says that we have been redeemed by God to “become agents of renewal.” Without offering clear Scriptural proof he puts forth statements such as “Churches are designed by God to be instruments of renewal in the world, renewing not only individual lives but also cultural forms and structures, helping to make straight all that is crooked in our world.” Now certainly Christians will be instruments of renewal, at least to some degree, but I do not find Scripture teaching that the church is to concern itself, at least primarily, with renewing cultural forms and structures.
He says also that “the New Testament clearly teaches that Jesus intends to bring about the restoration of all things—he’s working in the direction of total transformation.” At one point he says “By fulling engaging in every area of culture—education, art, politics, business, media, science—we’re following Paul’s example” at which point he quotes 1 Corinthians 9:22. And yet I do not see Paul’s concern with culture except as a means to reach souls. Without laying out my concerns with the potential cost of such theology to the church and to the Christian’s life, I will simply say that I do not see that the Bible teaches such an emphasis.
While such theology is found primarily in only one of the book’s four sections, it does provide a foundation for much of what follows. And in that way I found that it tainted what followed.
So I suppose I wouldn’t say that Unfashionable is a bad book and it is certainly not an unbiblical book. But I do feel that much of what Tchividjian teaches falls under the realm of nonbiblical. At the very least I would say that one section of this book majors on what Scripture at best regards as a minor. And hence it may just serve to distract people rather than focusing them on what the book does so well in calling people to make a difference by being different. I believe it would have been a stronger book without the emphasis (or over-emphasis) on transforming culture.