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Book Review - Worldliness by C.J. Mahaney
November 10, 2008
Any book on worldliness faces a difficult challenge. The author who takes too firm a stand on issues may slip into legalism while the author who takes too lax a stand may slip into the worldliness he seeks to avoid. The discerning author will need to tread the line, being careful to say no more than Scripture does while still dealing effectively with issues of contemporary importance. Because such a book is long overdue I was pleased to see that Worldliness would be coming from C.J. Mahaney and those whom John Piper affectionately refers to as “his gang.”
Mahaney handles the introductions in this book, beginning with a reflection called “Is This Verse in Your Bible?” He biblically defines worldliness saying that this world we’re not supposed to love is “the organized system of human civilization that is actively hostile to God and alienated from God.” Worldliness is a love for this fallen world and, specifically, “to gratify and exalt oneself to the exclusion of God.” Mahaney is careful to point out that worldliness is not extrinsic to us but intrinsic, inhabiting our fallen hearts. Worldliness does not consist of outward actions (though such actions can certainly be evidence of worldliness) but instead is a heart attitude that rebels against God. The antidote to worldliness is the cross of Christ. “Only through the power of the cross of Christ can we successfully resist the seduction of the fallen world.” Worldliness dulls our affections for Christ and distracts our hearts from him. Hence it is so serious “because Christ is so glorious.” While resisting worldliness is the theme of the book, its aim is to exalt Christ.
Each of the subsequent chapters is meant to build on this foundation. In “God, My Heart, and Media,” Craig Cabaniss discusses issues related to the pervasiveness of media in our society. Cabaniss grounds the discussion in grace, saying “any discussion of biblical obedience, including entertainment guidelines, must spring from a robust understanding of grace.” He offers the fair warning that we must guard our hearts as the conscience is prone to become dull over time. As we relax our standards and as we engage in ungodly media habits, our hearts may slowly become dulled to the things of Christ. He warns against the temptation to see anyone with stricter standards as us as legalistic while seeing anyone with more lenient standards as worldly. He encourages us to view proactively, to view accountably and to view gratefully.
In “God, My Heart, and Music,” Bob Kauflin takes on the subject of music, beginning with the fact that music was God’s idea long before it crossed the mind of any human. He states that “listening to music without discernment and godly intent reveals a heart willing to flirt with the world.” Saying that music itself is amoral (there are no holy or unholy harmonies or melodies) he warns that music does convey three things: content, context and culture. The Christian will need to discern what is being communicated through the music he listens to in order to ensure that he is not, perhaps inadvertently, absorbing messages that would conflict with his Christian faith. Kauflin closes with some good thoughts on using music for the glory of God.
To this point I felt the book was excellent. Though in a work of this nature each of the chapters could be little more than a cursory introduction to what might have been a book-length project, I felt the authors did a great job of teaching, exhorting and illustrating while avoiding those perilous extremes of worldliness and legalism. Unfortunately I felt that Worldliness soon stalled out. And this is where the job of a book reviewer gets tough. What do you do when you have great respect for an author (or a group of authors) but just don’t like the book they’ve produced?
The fourth chapter, entitled “God, My Heart, and Stuff” was authored by Dave Harvey. While I haven’t ever met Dave (at least to my recollection) I have benefited from reading his book When Sinners Say ‘I Do’. From my experience in reading that book I had high hopes for his contribution to this one. I was disappointed. While he addressed the heart so well in his book on marriage, in this case I found little of real depth. The next chapter, from the pen of C.J. Mahaney is titled “God, My Heart, and Clothes” and discusses the issue of modesty. It had very little application to men beyond stating that this is an issue for pastors and fathers to consider. Ultimately he provided a lot of quotes and a few good thoughts on modesty and encouraged women to dress properly. Both of the book’s appendices carried on the theme, with “A Modesty Heart Check” and “Considering Modesty on Your Wedding Day.” But this was quite a superficial look at modesty and one that offered little that we haven’t heard C.J. and others say before. It did not take the issue of modesty to men (where modesty of heart and intention comes into play) but instead serves as just another encouragement to girls to check their neckline and test their hemline (see Josh Harris’ Sex is Not the Problem, Lust Is for a more thorough look at it). Jeff Purswell concludes with a chapter titled “How to Love the World” in which he reminds the reader “To impart biblical discernment in areas that increasingly escape the scrutiny of the evangelical world so intent on ‘relating to the culture.’” He offers a summary of redemptive history in the grid of Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation and gives the reader a three-part charge: to enjoy the world, to engage the world and to evangelize the world. These last three chapters and the appendices were uniformly disappointing to me. Missing was the depth and intensity I’d expect from a book authored (or edited) by Mahaney.
Had I been hoping that this book might be another Humility or The Cross Centered Life, Worldliness would have been quite a disappointment. This is not to say the book is without value—there is a good bit of biblical wisdom to gain from it. But where it got off to a strong start, it quickly tapered out. In the end it just seemed a mite shallow—a work of far less depth and offering far less application than I’m accustomed to seeing from a book with Mahaney’s name on the cover. It came across as an uneven collection of essays of unequal value. I almost feel I should apologize when I say, it just isn’t that good of a book.