Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Book Review: Leonard Sweet's "Nudge"

I am a huge Leonard Sweet fan,
so to say his latest book is my favorite of his  is both  officially true and ridiculously false.

It's a bit safer to say my favorite  is whichever one I am reading, re-reading or teaching from at the moment.
I wish some of his lesser-known classics (and the catch is, all his books are classic) were better known ("Summoned to Lead"); and I love it when one of them is off the beaten track of his usual theme (church and culture), like "11."    I hope he never stops cranking them out.

By the way, these are not even all of his books...or even all that I own... here in the picture..

But I put "Nudge" on the top, because in a  sense it tops, and concatenates all those that came before.

I'll never forget Ezra Earl Jones' promo blurb on the back cover of  1994's " Faith Quakes" (my first Sweet book):
"....he reads everything, and remembers what he reads, and quotes widely."
That is actually almost an understatement!!

It is surely still one of his core gifts (I wonder how many more

 books are in his libary these sixteen years later)....and this time out, that gift seems  so  fueled  and focused  that I have no idea what he will do next to top or equal it.

This is his Joshua Tree.
(Which gives me great hope for more Sweet masterpieces, because I think U2 have produced a few more masterpieces.. after that seminal album...even after "chopping down the Joshua Tree.")

He still quotes wonderfully widely, from Polanyi (p, 17) to Julia Child (p.177)...all are theologians (and therefore "signs"..more on that in a minute), but this time the quotes  are even more exceptionally tethered and textured throughout the text.

Perhaps the beauty of the book, which is on evangelism, and Sweet saw it as sort of the third volume of a  trilogy on ecclesiology ("So Beautiful') and Chrostology "Jesus Manifesto," co-written with Frank Viola),
and it just tracks that an evanglism-ology   (aren't you glad there's no easy academic word for it?  Actually, I would suggest there is, but it's "semiotics."  See Sweet's  "Semiotics 101" section, pp. 41-44.  Semiotics is the study of signs...and Sweet suggests  on p. 272 that semiotics is indeed the very "currency of the gospel) would flow next.  And that after several books on culture, particularly those attuning us to EPIC culture, it's now time to spell out a practical theology of culturally-sensitive evangelism.

I love to open classes and seminars by abruptly and abductively asking the group to fill in the blanks in the following two statements with their first instinctive answers:

  • "In England, they drive on the __________ side of the road."
  • "Boy, you can sure tell _________ is at work in the secular world nowadays; all you have to do is look around!
One can debate the validity of several answers, but I maintain that until our first and foremost answers are "left" (as opposed to the worst wrong answer of "wrong"), and "God" (as opposed to "Satan" or "sin"...I mean, who's bigger and who's winning?), we have let Christian culture co-opt us into viewing our own culture as superior, and "secular" culture as inherently evil  (Here's a short magazine article I wrote on the two questions).

So, when it comes to evangelism, it is refreshing to find a volume whose subtitle is "Awakening Each Other To the God  Who's Already There,"... not "How To Share Your Faith with Godless People in a Godforsaken World."

No wonder Sweet makes the heterics list...he speaks vital, Isacharrian truth for our times.

Maybe it's that he comes from a Wesleyan tribe..for some reason, conservagelicalism (and Calvinism) are uncomfortable with what Wesley called "prevenient grace," the grace that precedes salvation.  But the "nudge" of the title suggests that teh very essence of evangelism is nudging pre-Chistians to recognize (or "re-cognize," as Sweet helpfully hyphenates it) where God and grace are already at work and wooing.  I read a Book once that claimed "the whole earth is full of his glory."  Could it be that earthlings are too...even the hellbound and heathen?

"Nudge evangelism" is based on the following three  revolutionary notions:

 ...(okay, some not so much “revolutionary” as hibernating—but when these “notions” cease logging zzz’s, they will have revolutionary consequences). We will explore these more in depth a little later. But let’s lay them out in full now:
-Jesus is alive and active in our world.
-Followers of Jesus “know” Jesus well enough to recognize where he is alive and moving in our day.
-Evangelists nudge the world to wake up to the alive and acting Jesus and nudge others in the ways God is alive and moving (I call these nudges “small saves”).
           -page 34 

As opposed to a review or summary, I'll simply highlight some of my favorite quotes and sections, and let you know that with my "6-star (out of 5)" review that you'll  "carpe manana" and order this timely book yesterday .

Nudge is an invitation to move beyond church-centric Christianity to a holistic, omnipresent theology of the signified reign of God. God is, Paul told the Athenians, “not far from any one of us.”37 If God can speak through a burning bush, through plagues of locust, through Balaam’s ass, through Babylon, through blood on doorposts, through Peter, through Judas, through Pilate’s jesting sign hung over the head of our Lord, and through the cross itself, then God can and will speak through art deco architecture, abstract expressionism, classic literature like Virgil’s Aeneid, ass media, disease, Disney, hunger, Twitter, etc. The question is never, “Is God using this?” Rather the question is, “What is my/our invitation upon hearing?”
God meets us everywhere, in a bewildering variety of forms and fashions. Eighteenth-century hymn writer Isaac Watts called John’s book of Revelation “the opera of the apocalypse.” We grow giddy over mystic numbers, signs and seals, heraldic beasts and composite beings, but what about the opera of the everyday? The ordinary and mundane? John Updike believed his only duty as a writer was “to describe reality as it had come … to give the mundane its beautiful due.” Updike was a brilliant semiotician.
Nudge argues for the triangulation of all three: Scripture, Culture, Spirit. But we walk a tonal tightrope: in touch with the world but in tune with the Spirit through highly pitched souls, with heightened sensitivities that connect to the Scriptures and then to the Spirit and then to the culture.
"As we watch for the signs of your kingdom on earth,
we echo the song of the angels in heaven." (Eucharistic Prayer F, Common Worship).
           -From chapter one, free read here, or download here)

I love this section as it says so well what I have tried to say, but not so well.  We have a motto in our church family:"Engaged to Jesus, and Engaging Culture."  We intentionally didn't go for the obvious cautionary connective: "Engaged to Jesus,  BUT Engaging Culture."
I admit, with Sweet, that it is a "tonal tightrope," and sometimes delicate balance..but it is the normative, formative way/place to no "but," only a reminder that Jesus has assumed we have been "in the world" already all this time.  As Sweet often says, "We are in the world, and not of it...but not out of it yet either."

It should go without saying, but because the church has been overreactionary on the other extreme, it is good that Sweet does say it (on p. 55):"The world is not God, of course, but the incarnation goes all the way down, and the Spirit indwells all that exists."
I love to ask, "Who is the Holy Spirit poured out in in our day?"
The (shocking) answer: "Absolutely all flesh.
You want chapter and verse? 
I nudge you to check out  Joel 2:28  and Acts 2:17

I am a great fan of one of Sweet's recurring themes over the years, a "sound theology" (see that tag at bottom of this post for info), so I was thrilled he sounded the theme again.  See especially chapter four, "Pause: Use Your Ears (Do You Give Ear to God?").

  • "To read the Bible, the ears come before the eyes' (p, 148)
  • "Nudge begins with sound"  (153)

Throughout the book, he calls attention to (well, first of all the primacy and discipline of "calling attention" itself , and "giving attention",  noting that "attention is a relational term" [p. 279]).... how often Scriptures, particularly Jesus...and thus hopefully we as  welll begin with "Listen..."

Perhaps my  ultimate recommendation of the book is knowing that deep at heart, most every reader of this post (anyone brave enough to be found on my blog) intuitively knows, and resonates  (a "sound" word, by the way)with this fact:

"Evangelism as we know it hasn't worked."  (35)

And for those who appreciate how vital 

 are for communicating in our EPIC days, the very closing and quite intriguing 
last words (word-pictures) of the entire book are:

"Maybe the dove and rooster are companion birds.  (279)

I dare you to buy the book, and not jump to the end of the book to unpack that statement, which itself can summarize microcosmically the whole book and nudge of "Nudge."

Instead, I humbly nudge you..and double dare you... to read the book in one sitting,
which may well be the only way you'll be able to.

It's that good.

I nudge you to weigh it.

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